The late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is quoted as saying that if her opinion runs more than 20 pages, she was disturbed that she was unable to do it shorter. Dr. Seuss composed “A Short Condensed Poem in Praise of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books,” in which he stated that “the writer who breeds more words than he needs is making a chore for the reader who reads.” In his “Aspects of the Novel,” E. M. Forster declared that “Long books, when read, are usually overpraised, because the reader wishes to convince others and himself that he has not wasted his time.”
Although I mean no disrespect to these celebrated writers, I cannot help but disagree with their assessments that invalidate the merit of long texts. Many of my favorite novels are more than 400 pages and I’m not just defending these books to justify the time spent reading them. It’s incredible when you dive into a true page-turner and there seems to always be more pages to turn, more adventures to uncover, and more characters to explore.
Last year, I took Professor Morson’s Introduction to Russian Literature, a class in which we read two books, “The Brothers Karamazov” and “Anna Karenina,” and both of them contain more than 800 pages. While this forced me to read significantly more than I typically would for a literature class, staying with the same protagonists for so much of the course was a stimulating switch, as it allowed the class to really analyze the progression of each novel thoroughly. The books were rich with enough detailed material that we could continue to discuss without repetition, but also without the need to learn a new set of characters and concepts.
I stumbled upon another enthralling long novel this summer — “The Children’s Book” by A. S. Byatt — which details the lives of several interrelated families over a 25-year period. As I read the nearly 700-page novel, I was invested in the development of each of the numerous characters and the intertwinement of so many elements in Byatt’s world. She also utilized the substantial space to describe the historical context of various events, to insert real-life figures as guests appearing in certain scenes, and to add in segments of writings that one of the protagonists is supposed to have written. In a shorter novel, the same amount of worldbuilding and character growth would be impossible because the author could not provide an equivalent level of detail, which in turn, would decrease the impact of the book on the reader.
When a novel is really great, the reader does not want it to end. Why dream of returning to the real world when the book’s setting or characters are so enticing? Why risk leaving this text and jumping to a new one when the next novel may not be nearly as delightful? Long books provide the reader with the opportunity to stay entertained while feeling comforted by the familiarity of characters and places they’ve already learned. It’s like watching a long sitcom like “The Office” where after a brief introduction to the show’s world, there’s a seemingly endless amount of material to devour and enjoy.
Plus, if a lengthy novel manages to hold your attention so that you yearn to complete it, the book must be well-written and engrossing. Composing a short piece that entertains the reader requires less action and less planning as there is a smaller space to fill. Anyone could then take this condensed framework and expand it by adding extra words or unnecessary plotlines, but what makes worthy long novels so great is that this additional content was deemed compelling enough that no one edited it out, demonstrating the author’s prowess.
Hopefully, I’ll find another lengthy novel to read over Winter Break that is captivating enough to dwell in for a while, and if not, I have plenty of old favorites to return to that can occupy my time with their hundreds of pages.
Simona Fine is a McCormick junior. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.