Does size matter?

Do you consider the length of a book before you buy it?

We’re all told by the powers that be that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover and by extension I guess we shouldn’t judge a book by its length either. However, we are shallow creatures and we do judge books by their covers – ALWAYS. Even if after a moment we make sure we try to absorb as much of the content of the book before we buy it, the cover has left an indelible mark. With books, as with people, first impressions count, and they last.

Personally I think the apparent length of a book affects our first impression of it as well. A leftover sense of grumpiness from our teen years makes us look at a long book and think ‘oh god’ because it will take us forever to read it. Now we’re grown up (sort of) we shouldn’t have this attitude towards long books, especially after we were made to read them at university and actually learned the benefits of long-time dedication to one text. However, we often still do. This is due to our oh so busy lives and the fact that reading is  rather time-consuming, and of course laziness is a factor.

But it’s not as simple as this. There exists the inaccurate opinion that if a book is a big long tome it must be super intellectual and brilliant, probably because it is that much harder to write a very long book and also to stick with it and read the whole thing. Just because a book is long, however, does not mean that it is any better than one that is short. Some long books are super intellectual and difficult, but guess what, there are short books that are just as challenging.

Particularly in the case of fiction novels, a book should only be long if it needs to be. The worst thing is to read a book and find that it drags on and pages and pages are wasted on piffle that could have been cut. When telling a story we must consider what is worth telling – not all stories need to be told, not every tiny detail needs to be laboured through and laid out before us. This is the problem with much of George Eliot’s work – she included every single detail when she didn’t need to (a perfect example being the opening scene of Daniel Deronda, set in a casino, which is absolutely tedious and unnecessary) and this makes the story drag and the reader get bored. These kind of unnecessary details are essentially fluff and mean nothing. I would rather a book be short and beautiful and full than long and rambling and indulgent and blah blah blah.

Maybe I’m biased; but I’ve read and loved short and long books alike. In the end it is of course the content and style of a book, whether it’s fiction or not, that makes us love it. Long books can be amazing, but frankly the length has to be worth it. Do I have a commitment problem when it comes to books? Maybe I do, but maybe I’m just demanding. I personally hate to have dedicated time and effort to a lengthy book and find that it was pretty much all a waste. It is a truly horrid feeling to be left unsatisfied by a book that we have put so much into. If it was short, at least we didn’t waste too much time; but if it was long – let’s say more than 300 or 400 pages – we’ve wasted loads of time and effort and now it’s going to take up loads of space on the bookshelf until we fob it off on a friend or just dump it in Oxfam.

So length is important and first impressions count. Covers are more immediate than the size of the book, but if we have learned anything it is that we must thoroughly consider the content and therefore worth of the book before we choose to invest it financially, intellectually and emotionally. Books are truly wonderful and vitally important things, but it is a sad fact that a lot of them exist that are just tosh that is not worth reading. We also cannot take in an infinite number of words, ideas and facts, and so we must be somewhat selective in what we choose to read. Of course there are many aspects to consider and length is only one of them; but it’s a good place to start.

Lizzi Thomasson, December 2011.

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