What Makes a Long Book Feel Too Long?

I have been reading the same book for what feels like weeks. 

Technically, this isn’t true. I read the book in question for about ten days. This is a perfectly reasonable number of days in which to read a book. Any number of days is a perfectly reasonable number of days in which to read a book, to be clear. But I read fast, generally, and I was frustrated. “I have read two books worth of book already,” I complained to my partner, “and I have an entire book worth of book left to go?!?”

He responded with a question that brought me up short: What was different about this very long book than, say, a Robin Hobb book, or a volume of The Expanse? What made this long book feel long, when I’ve read so many other long books that didn’t feel ponderous and slow, no matter how long it took to read them?

Why did ten days feel like three weeks?

There are more than a few doorstoppers on my shelves. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. The aforementioned Robin Hobb, several series’ worth. Not one Expanse novel is under 500 pages. There’s a tower of Neal Stephenson, including Reamde (1056 pages) and Anathem (960). Some chunky Iain M. Banks. The Fifth Season is not small, but it’s a relatively breezy (for SFF) 512 pages. And, of course, there are those books with dragons that they made into that TV show.

The easy thing is to say that long books feel shorter when the plot moves quickly. But it’s not that simple. Does the plot move quickly in Jonathan Strange? I couldn’t tell you, because I can’t remember the plot. I remember the characters, the vibes, the settings, the way it felt to read the book. By contrast, I remember that Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle is about nothing less than—as the third book’s title has it—The System of the World, or systems, plural. I finished that book in a daze, said, “I think he just explained how money works?” and then wanted nothing more than to go back to the beginning and read all three giant volumes again, with the perspective accorded to me by the conclusion.

I read that series with a literal encyclopedia at hand. I am very bad at history and learned very little of it in my rural high school, and I wanted to fill in the gaps as I went. Who was real, who was fictional, who was some blend of the two—I needed context. I could’ve just looked everyone up online, but I wanted to sit apart from the internet, focused, just reading. So I bought a single-volume student encyclopedia and educated myself, a little bit at a time.

It wasn’t a fast reading experience, but it didn’t feel slow. It felt immersive, dense, at times arcane, because Stephenson loves to be a little (or a lot) arcane. (I also learned too much about at least two medical procedures. You never know what will stay with you from a book. Or which characters you will love even more when you meet a very different version of them.) 

There are SFF books that are famously long. Dhalgren, for one, is by many accounts a fairly challenging 800-plus pages. Tad Williams’ To Green Angel Tower is so long that it was published in two mass-market volumes (and despite my teenage love for the first two books in Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, I was daunted, and never finished reading the series). Stephen King’s The Stand is a beast, and people love it. Every Outlander novel is huge. 

Do George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire novels feel long? They didn’t, to me, and if I start thinking about why, we’re back to the plot question. Many things happen in these books. By about the third one, it starts to feel like every other chapter ends with a mini cliffhanger: ARE THEY DEAD? (This is often a fakeout, and then, suddenly, it really isn’t.) But the books also don’t feel long because they follow people. They are, in some ways, novels of ideas, but those ideas are slipped into characters and conflict, settings and systems. You can get caught up in the way the world works, if that’s what you’re looking for, but you can also find your personal hook in Sansa’s growth, Dany’s actions, Tyrion’s choices about how to live in a world that so rarely wants him. Martin may not be a grand prose stylist, but he knows his characters. They’re why we read.

They’re why I stay absorbed in The Expanse, which is full of ideas—some of them very depressing—about how people are on both an individual and epic scale. People rarely talk about what happens in a Hobb series; they talk about Fitz and the Fool, about Nighteyes and Chade. (But mostly about Fitz and the Fool.) Characters are windows and doors at once: They are how we walk into other worlds, cross other forests and swim other seas, and how we see into other minds and hearts and societies. It’s their job to transport us—intellectually, emotionally, imaginatively—no matter how long the journey takes.

“Savoring a book of, say, 800 pages or longer is a project. No book that size is perfect, because excess is kind of the point,” Boris Kachka wrote at Vulture a few years ago. In a 2015 Guardian article, one interviewee spoke of “big, ambitious” books. Last year, a month into the pandemic, LitHub ran a list of the 50 best contemporary novels over 500 pages. “The good ones,” Emily Temple wrote, “always seem to create space for the reader: space to sink and settle, and time to really learn what you’re dealing with, both in terms of character and in terms of author. You have to build something, reading a really long book. It’s almost a collaborative experience.”

A book doesn’t have to be long to feel long; a novella can feel long if the elements are out of balance, or if it just isn’t working for you. Excess isn’t absolutely required. Ambition isn’t determined by page count. Temple gets the closest to how I feel about a solid, engrossing, long-ass book: The experience is different. Collaborative is a lovely and optimistic way to put it; immersive feels closer. Like Temple wrote, the good long novel lets you sink in. It lets you find space for yourself among its pages, and gives you the tools to really see something you maybe didn’t expect to find. 

What made the book I was reading feel like it took weeks instead of ten days? It didn’t just feel slow; it felt like it was sitting on my chest, weighing me down, stopping me from thinking about other things. It was swallowing me. Some of this was intentional, I think, and some of it was me as a reader running into the unstoppable force that is Neal Stephenson on a tear. (The book was Termination Shock; a review is coming.) I couldn’t get out from under the cloud of his vivid near-future, couldn’t think about other things, couldn’t even daydream about what I was going to read next. (Sarvat Hasin’s The Giant Dark—ordered from the UK at a friend’s recommendation—sits on the table, calling to me.)

Every book that works for a reader does so via the specific, elusive alchemy of reading. What in your mind clicks with what came from the author’s? And when it doesn’t work, what connection has failed? What element is you, and what’s the book, and what combination of joy and frustration could never have happened precisely the same way for anyone else? There’s almost magic in not liking a book, just as there is in loving one. It’s just something different to try to understand.

Molly Templeton lives and writes in Oregon, and spends as much time as possible in the woods. Sometimes she talks about books on Twitter.

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