Monday, March 7, 2011

A Short Post About Short Novels

Probably because it runs contradictory to my inclination towards verbosity, I have an irrational hesitancy towards reading short books. In fact, whenever I read a review of a new novel that sounds interesting, I'll immediately go to Amazon or B&N and check to see how many pages it is (the NY Times is very helpful in this respect because it publishes the number of pages with its reviews). If it's fewer than 300, I'm disappointed. If it's fewer than 300, that's a strike against the book in my internal debate on whether or not to buy it. Some readers are scared away by long novels. I'm scared away by short ones.

When Lords of Misrule, by Jaimy Gordon, won the National Book Award last year, I was chapfallen to learn that it clocks in at only 296 pages. Similarly, last year's Pulitzer winner, Tinkers, by Paul Harding, is a slight 192 pages. And so I still haven't read either. I'm just now getting around to reading The Imperfectionists (288 pages), which, because it's a novel about journalists, about 134 people have told me I'd love. And I do.

So why this hesitation against short novels? Yes, well, in addition to my inclination towards verbosity, I think it's simply because they go by too quickly. The quicker you read a novel, the faster you forget it — in most cases (see below for a few of my exceptions). I'm never happier than when I spend a few weeks immersed in a fictional world, and frankly, that's just not possible with a 250-page book.

But that's not to say my rule is ironclad. I have read and greatly enjoyed many short novels, including many that have stuck with me. Here's a top 5 list of my favorite sub-300-page novels:
5. Mariette in Ecstasy, by Ron Hansen (192 pages)
4. Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn (272 pages)
3. The History of Love, by Nicole Krauss (272 pages)
2. Everything Is Illuminated, by Jonathan Safran Foer (288 pages)
1. The Road, by Cormac McCarthy (256 pages)

Anyone else have this hesitancy towards short books? What's on your list of favorite short novels?


  1. YOU are a page snob!!! I actually like shorter books. While not all achieve success (but lets face it, there are some pretty crappy long ones, and who wants to read a 600 page stinker?), if an author can nail their point in less than 300 pages, I'm impressed. I can't even list all the ones that have knocked my socks off. There are many classics that are short...The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye, The Old Man and the Sea, Fahrenheit 451. Many many great YA novels are short as well. I probably just need to shut up now!

  2. I really just want a book to be as long as it needs to be and no longer (or shorter), but I think I am MORE likely to pick up a shorter book because they are less of a commitment. There are an infinite number of books out there I want to read, and every 600-page novel is two 300-page novels I will never get to. That doesn't mean I regret reading the 600-page Skippy Dies, but the barrier for entry is higher with a doorstopper (which is why I am reluctant to read epic fantasy, despite the prodding of a nerdy friend... yes, the book is 600 pages, and it is the first in a ten-book series).

  3. That is an interesting thing to do. I try to work a certain rhythmn in between short and long novels, knowing that if a book goes over 500 pages I will take twice as long to read it.

  4. I'm the other way and I get scared away by a long book. It's the time commitment for the longer books that scares me away. I hardly stop a book once I've started it so a bad long book is scary. I will check out long books from time to time (Strange & Norrell) but I have to hear a lot of really good things about them first. Short books I can do on impulse.

  5. I agree with Joel--a book should end at just the perfect moment after its precisely-allotted number of pages. And only the book knows when that is.

    That being said, these days, I'm a little wary of longer novels simply because I'm trying to read as widely as possible in as great of quantities as I can. Maybe not the most productive of reading schedules, but that's what I've saddled myself with at the moment. Going through my Library Thing catalog, a few "short(er)" novels that stand out: "Deliverance," "Catcher in the Rye," "As I Lay Dying," "The Great Gatsby," "Wildlife" (by Richard Ford), and "That Night" (by Alice McDermott).

    On the other side of the see-saw, weighing in at 400 pounds, are these favorites: most everything by Dickens (but especially "Dombey and Son"), "The Count of Monte Cristo," "Underworld" and "Moby-Dick."

  6. While it should be the writer's prose and plot that make a book worth reading, I always lean towards shorter works because of time. The Anthologist, The Stranger, If on a winter's night a traveler, and Motherless Brooklyn were all great shorter novels that work their length well. But some of the best books I've ever read have been long: 2666, Crime and Punishment, The Tin Drum, V.

  7. Sometimes a story has only got what it's got and if that's only 190 pages that's a beautiful thing. I loved both I'm Not Scared - at 214 pages, and The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ at 245 pages. IMO the perfect number of pages for both of these tales.

  8. @Sandy - I guess you're right, I am a page snob. ;) Of course, I've enjoyed those classics you've mentioned. It's not like I don't enjoy short books when I read them, it's just that I like the experience of a longer book more, I think.

    @Joel - Of course, you're right - a book should only be exactly as long as it needs to. For a doorstop, I think you're right again that the barrier is higher - maybe what I'm trying to say is that my sweet spot (on purely judging-a-book-by-its-size-grounds) is 400-500 pages.

    @Ben - The thing is, it doesn't necessarily take me as long in terms of days with a novel to read a longer book than a shorter one. If the shorter one sucks, I'll avoid it, whereas if the long one is good, I'll devour it.

    @Red - Yeah, I think you represent the majority readers in that respect. I do read short books, but I actually tend to pick up longer ones on impulse more frequently. Abnormal? Yes.

  9. @David - Wow, you and Sandy are on the same page regarding the favorite, short classic. I try to read as widely as possible, too - but the biggest reason for my hesitancy towards shorter novels is that I'm always afraid I'm going to forget them easier. And what's the point of reading widely if you don't remember anything? I'm sure there are a lot of answers to that question, but it's one that's always in the back of my mind. And again, I don't NOT ever read short books (like some people who NEVER read anything over 500 pages), it's just that a shorter novel has to be something I want to be sure I really want to read before I'll spend three sittings with it and then toss it on the shelf.

    @thezebracactus - Ah, good call on Motherless Brooklyn - should've included that on my list. Most of my favorite novels - Infinite Jest, Trinity, A Prayer For Owen Meany, The Power of One - are all longer ones, oddly enough.

    @mummazappa - You're right, of course - a short novel isn't inherently a bad one. It just takes less time to read. But there's just as much a chance for a lasting impact as a long one, right?

  10. I have the solution to your problem (ok, maybe it's more of a preference than a problem, but anyway). You need to start reading on an electronic device! On most, the whole concept of pages goes right out the window. It's very liberating in a way, though it can also be daunting as you tick through ten screens and the percentages don't budge (I'm looking at you, Infinite Jest).

  11. I have been trying to keep everything under 300. Mostly laziness. I really liked Tinkers. It has stayed with me. Enjoyed the ending. I like Satori in Paris by Kerouac; Heart of Darkness by Conrad; and Death in Venice by Mann. That's off the top of my head. Not sure if those are short novels or novellas. What's the definition there? Okay, this comment is too long.

  12. i'm tempted by shorter novels, simply because it's less of a risk. books are a massive time investment with -- for me -- less than consistent payout.

    i'd not thought of the fact that the longer a novel, the longer you are lost in it, therefore the more likely you are to remember it: but it rings true with me. i tend, with exceptions, to remember the longer ones.

    but short books have their charm for the very opposite of your first preference for long -- they can do away with a lot of verbosity, which can (only in the best hands) make them hugely effective in terms of the word equivalent of pressure per square inch. i'm thinking Gatsby, Slaughterhouse 5, etc.

  13. Greg!!! You're missing out on what the short novel can hand you. With short novels, you can get more read over a year... books that is... not pages. I have loved the short novels for a good reason: some of them aren't short novels, but books of short stories. And sometimes you need that; a break from the massive reams of paper that can be used as door stops.
    Some of the best books I've gotten my nose into over time are:

    'The Wave' by Todd Strasser (138 pages) based on a true story and is really creepy.

    'The Day of the Triffids' by John Wyndham (272 pages) and I loved it as it felt like a really long book; but it wasn't!

    'The Picture of Dorian Gray' by Oscar Wilde (153 pages) and I must say, that guy could write a brilliant book!

    'Fahrenheit 451' by Ray Bradbury (173 pages) and this book was brilliant for where I was... a place where the bookstore of the town had just closed down.

    I've got a collection of short novels and short story books for those times when I need to get over a big thick book; and they're a great relief to get into as they're short and sweet and an absolute delight to read.

  14. Love this post! I'm less concerned about the length of the book and more interested if it will add anything to my goal o being well-read. I think you've inspired me for a post... more to follow.

    Good short novels that come to mind:
    On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
    The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan
    Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night time by Mark Haddon
    Man in the dark by Paul Auster
    Night by Ellie Wiesel

  15. @Patrick - Now you're talking! I've been thinking more seriously about getting an e-reader, and short books (and the dumb thrillers that are cluttering up my shelves) is a great reason.

    @ken - Tinkers is good, eh? Heard it was dramatically overrated. I'll have to give it a second look.

    @Ben - You're right that they're less of a risk, but you could make the argument lower risk, lower reward, too. I'm not sure I would make that argument, but you could. And, yes, in terms of "pressure per square inch" (love that!) Slaughterhouse Five is at the top of the list!

    @Mozette - Oh, I'm not saying I never read short novels ever. It's just that I tend to wish all novels were in the 400-500 range, for maximum reading pleasure. Thanks for the suggestions! Fahrenheit 451 is actually a favorite of mine, as well.

    @Kath - On Chesil Beach is good, eh? I love McEwan, but skipped that one because I heard he sort of sleep walked through that one. Night is awesome!

  16. A larger novel constitutes a longer reading experience, that's true, and that makes it all the more important that the book is in fact a good one. I get nervous buying a heavy volume because it's a costlier investment of time (and money, usually).
    I'm going to mention Tinkers, too, as worth a look. Since it deals in death and metaphysics, it's hugely expansive for a book of its size. Its brevity also has another advantage: Tinkers is also pretty boring for stretches, which is easier to deal with in 200-page book.