Books: In Literature, Size Matters

I wish Vikram Chandra all the best. But I am not going to finish his novel, “Sacred Games.” I read more than 100 pages, enough to know that he is a good writer. He has done just what early reviews of his 928-page novel say he’s done: mixed the techniques of a literary novel with the plot of a police procedural. The only problem is, I don’t care. Oh, I care a little bit. Just not enough to make myself read another 800 pages.

Book reviewers, if they’re being paid and if they’re being the least bit fair, finish the books they review. But this creates a strange, maybe unnatural, situation: the very people paid to be objective about a book are also duty bound to finish it, and believe it or not, this warps a lot of peoples’ judgment. Let’s say you read a 900-page novel and you don’t absolutely hate it. You even sort of like it. Are you going to say that? Apparently not, judging by most reviews I read. Most reviewers get invested in the books they review, one way or the other. So the books are either panned outright or praised. The praise isn’t necessarily over the top, but it is praise. The reviewer has an investment now. He or she has spent a lot of time reading this book. Can’t just say, oh, it was OK. So you wind up with positive reviews that lack something—heart, maybe?

I’ve done this myself. I think it’s unavoidable. But not always. And not when the book is more than 900 pages long. Nothing like a 900-page book to make me stand up for what I believe in.

It’s not laziness. All right, it’s not just laziness. Let me try this another way. If I were a book buyer and bought this novel based on the reviews, I think I would wonder what all the fuss was about. It’s a good book, but it’s not a great book. OK, fine, the first 100 pages are good but not great. Maybe it gets great after the first 100 pages. But if you haven’t landed me as a reader after 100 pages, forget it. And that raises another point: numbers count. If you’re going to write 900-plus-page novels, you’d better be as good as Dickens, or I … or I’m going to read Dickens.

My time is precious. Your time is, too. Who has enough time in the day to do all that we want? When I go home after work, it’s triage every night. I can listen to music. Or I can play music. Or I can answer letters or write. Or I can read a book. Or watch TV. Or watch a DVD on TV. Or go out to a concert or a movie. And those would be the nights that I don’t have to clean up the kitchen, do the laundry or help with homework.

When I realized that I get paid to read and that I still don’t have time to read everything I want—in fact, it’s hard to just barely keep up—that was when I realized how up against it everyone else is. Almost no one has time to read indiscriminately for pleasure these days. You have to pick and choose and then pick and choose again, and if you choose wrong, well, there are few things more aggravating than getting well into a book and discovering that you don’t like it after all. You’ve wasted your time. Your money. And unlike a bad movie, where you brush the popcorn off your lap and forget the whole thing by the time you hit the street, a bad book just sits there on the shelf, reminding you daily what a miserable experience you had. It’s a wonder that anyone reads anything any more.

And it puts enormous pressure on writers. My hat is off to Vikram Chandra, and Thomas Pynchon, too —both of whom have lately written enormous novels. They are flying in the face of evidence that the world no longer has time for long, leisurely books. I commend their courage and their spirit, but I fear their days are numbered, for while a writer writes what he or she must, the days of Thackeray and Fielding and George Eliot are not coming back.

Which is not to say that we will no longer read those writers, or any others who write long—and this is the crucial part—compelling books. A great book from any age will draw you home at night to read it and to hell with the laundry. A truly great book (and here I’ll steal Nabokov’s definition of great literature: something the makes the hair on your neck stand on end) will have you doing things you didn’t know you were capable of. When I read “Bleak House,” I broke one of the cardinal rules of reading: I skipped ahead—not because I was bored, but because Esther had the pox and I had to see if she was going to live or die. That book really got its claws in me. But here’s a funny thing: I didn’t finish “Bleak House” either. I didn’t stop, though, because I wasn’t engaged by the story. I stopped because I couldn’t bear to have it end. I’ve done that maybe three times in my life with books I’ve loved, because I wanted them to go on forever. And at least in the case of “Bleak House,” it didn’t matter all that much any way because, hey, I saw the movie.