- Urbino, Italy - When browsing the contemporary literature section in your local bookstore, you may have noticed the lack of big books. Almost all fiction now is about 300 pages - exception made for fantasy books, but they're generally a collection of volumes - and, to me, this is due to a few factors.
The very first reason is definitely the "industry" side of books. They've now become pretty much like any other product, so everything in it is made to sell, and authors are set to become trademarks. This explains why so many writers nowadays publish a new book once a year, something that obviously results in short novels, which leave their readers hungry for more.
Another relevant factor is the modern use of a book, the space reading has in common life. Being so busy, with tight work schedules and a big desire for sleeping earlier in the evenings, we either don't read or can only manage to read just short, light, intuitive books. A few pages a day, interrupted by getting off our bus, or cooking dinner, or, often enough, falling asleep on the book itself.
Plus, I think there has been a spread of a sense of respect and fear towards a big, tall, heavy book. I remember being fifteen or sixteen, reading Insomnia by Stephen King at the beach, when a man passing by shouted, "Hey girl, what's up with that?!" Big books look heavy in every meaning of the word..and they often have a heavy price as well.
I recently bought Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, thanks to a huge discount on Amazon - I read so many good things about it, even more so since Wallace killed himself a few years ago, apparently leaving a tremendous, empty space. He's one of those authors, those very few contemporary authors who get to be compared to the likes of James Joyce, my dears. My favorite bookstore hung up a poster of him when he committed suicide - and my bookstore does not do posters. So there's this book, this huge book - and I'm no big book person - and people say it's as good as Joyce's Ulysses. U-l-y-s-s-e-s.
You must know Ulysses has been staying on my bookshelf for years. I was more or less fifteen when I started reading about it, and I picked it up from my father's library and put it on my bookshelf. It stays there, untouched. Sometimes I just pass by it, stop, and look at it. I communicate with Ulysses - don't worry, I'll read you one day. It’s one of those books that measure and define my time. I’m constantly telling myself, when I’m at a new border in my life, that I should have read it by now, but it's just such a big book - and here I just mean a masterpiece, the ultimate respectable book - that I never feel ready.
Of course, when I was reading reviews on Infinite Jest, I instantly thought : so this is as good as Ulysses, but it's contemporary. I can do this. I'll be The Girl Who Read A Huge Book, it'll be amazing. Who knows, I may read Ulysses afterwards.
Infinite Jest came in the mail and I read the first twenty pages in a rush. I liked it, even though I didn't really know where it was going. And then, nothing. The thing with big books is, they basically share the same structure as average books, that is, an introduction, something turning the plot on, a conclusion. It just takes many more pages to switch from part one to part two. You must be patient, and let the book take you there.
What really turned out being a problem was the book's size, related to my lifestyle. I usually read in bed, or on the couch between my morning work and lunch, but what I like the most is to carry the book around. When I'm in love with the book I'm reading, which is basically anytime I pass the first fifty pages, I cannot physically stay away from it. It is always with me, even when I know I won't get to read it. I carry it in my bag, around the house - it's just a silly thing but I like to know I can go there if I ever need to. It keeps me attached to the story, to the writing, and gives me the chance to feel the paper or re-read a meaningful sentence anytime.
Not being able to carry this book around really takes a lot away from my personal reading experience. It's also pretty uncomfortable to read in bed, and heavy to hold. This is probably not just my problem. Also, many people now are very lazy readers, who just read one or two books a year, and they have to be suggested by someone. An occasional reader would definitely not go for a thousand-page volume. How can an editor avoid the trouble, then? How can they make it a less intimidating presence in bookstores?
One solution would be to reduce the font, probably. This would definitely shrink the book's size. Still, I believe page structure has a lot to do with one's approach and feelings towards what he's reading. A full, tiny written page really makes you feel like there's no breathing space. Just like a book with no chapters - you need a place to stop at and pick your reading up later on, you need a page that allows you to think.
A different option would consist in splitting the book into two or three volumes, but that would really change a reader's perception of the novel. It wouldn't be a whole book anymore, it would turn the author's work into something else - and the author has every right to write a big book, no matter what.
I've always found it really hard to read one though. I've abandoned countless big books, but I feel there’s something really, really special laying inside each of those. Still, the overwhelming feeling I always get is that it would take a lot of reading time away from me, and that's already not much. Committing to devoting a whole month or more to reading just one book is a huge sign of faith towards a novel, but it's hard to be really caught by the book so as not to see you're even investing so much time. How do you become one of those people who gets challenged by big books? Do you think it just depends on the book itself?
P.S: Hey, Ulysses, it’s okay. Your time will come.