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September 9, 2014

Long Books Worth Their Weight in Pages

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As a person who writes about books, I’m pretty much required to turn up my nose and say the book is better any time one is adapted into a movie or a show.

And while too-long movies is not a new criticism of Hollywood, Ian McEwan --- who writes about books with more authority than I do --- recently spoke out about the current trend in the book world: novels that sit around the 800-page mark. (Just pick up the current bestseller list and see OUTLANDER and THE GOLDFINCH occupying top spots). According to McEwan, there are very few long novels that earn their page count.

McEwan didn’t talk about how the long-book trend fits into the adaptation trend, so I will. Part of the reason “Game of Thrones”and now “Outlander” are such great shows --- aside from the usual things like acting, production value, writing --- is because they keep the elements that make each story compelling, but cut through all the waffle the editors were too afraid to cut from the books.

Do we really need to spend 200 pages with minor characters who are inconsequential to the story? Do we really need a 30-page description of foliage or food?

When THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO first came out, everyone said, “It gets better once you get past the first 100 pages.” If you need to say that, it’s no wonder the screen adaptation is more captivating. Why didn’t the editor say that?

If you want to truly be able to say the book is better then the book needs to earn that by not having spans of pages that could easily be cut away. Otherwise, even readers have to admit that watching well-scored violent field hockey (shinty) is much more compelling than plodding through 20 pages on medicinal plants (OUTLANDER).

Just so that I don’t feel like a long-book hater, here are a handful of contemporary tomes that even Ian McEwan might agree are worth checking out.

THIS IS ALL: The Pillow Book of Cordelia Kenn by Aiden Chambers
Page Count: 816
Why It’s Worth Its Weight in Pages: This won’t be everyone’s cup of tea --- if you like your books heavy with plot, turn away. More of an extensive character study than a story, it explores the heart and soul of a teenage girl with a rawness that is both incredible and borderline alarming (alarming because the author is a middle aged man and he writes about being a teenage girl better than people who have actually experienced being one). Think a longer, more structurally unique CATCHER IN THE RYE, if Holden was a girl. And English. And marginally less angsty.

AMERICAN GODS by Neil Gaiman
Page Count: 624
Why It’s Worth Its Weight in Pages: There are so many threads in this book that still leave much to be explored; this is one of the only long books that arguably should have been even longer. Gaiman himself has said he was unable to fit all of his ideas into this volume and intends to write a sequel. We’re still waiting on that sequel, as well as the TV adaptation that may or may not ever happen. If it does happen, unlike other screen adaptations, what will make us say the show is better is if they add rather than cut.

HELEN OF TROY by Margaret George
Page Count: 656
Why It’s Worth Its Weight in Pages: This is not quite historical fiction but not quite not. An epic tale of the Trojan war, George makes the choice to include the gods and monsters (because what fun would it be without them?) but leaves them elusively on the edges of the story and focuses on the humans. There is a reason this narrative has been compelling for thousands of years, and it’s no small feat to make it feel fresh.

SALEM’S LOT by Stephen King
Page Count: 674
Why It’s Worth Its Weight in Pages:Every aspect of this story, even --- or maybe especially --- the mundane parts, are jigsaw puzzle pieces to the slow-burning nightmare.

THE BLIND ASSASSIN by Margaret Atwood
Page Count: 656
Why It’s Worth Its Weight in Pages: This is another long book that could benefit from being even longer, if only so that we can get more of the delightfully weird story-within-a-story. I’m not going to say that a novel about an elderly, small-town Canadian woman reflecting on her life needed more alien societies, because there are just the right amount…but…we could always see more of them.