Sunday, September 04, 2011

It's better to have a short book that you actually read than a fat one that you don't

I've read two books in the last week: Submergence is a novel about a British agent taken hostage by Al-Qaeda in Somalia. Its author J.M. Ledgard says its aim is "to alter the perspective of the planet we inhabit". The Sense Of An Ending by Julian Barnes is about a man in his sixties trying to distinguish between the things he remembers of his young life and the things that actually occured.

They're both, in their different ways, terrific. You can imagine Ledgard being a cult favourite for years to come. The Barnes book could be a big popular success because its central premise is so compelling. The thing they have in common, and the reason I've been able to read the pair of them in a week, is that they're both short. Submergence is 208 pages, The Sense Of An Ending only 160. You could read either of them in an afternoon and evening. I don't know whether this indicates that the publishing business is starting to favour brevity. It wouldn't be a bad thing if it did. Most books, like most films and most records, don't need to be anything like as long as they are.

Funny that I should read these books so quickly in the same week that the new management of Waterstone's announced that they're stopping their famous "three-for-two" offers on books. As I write this I'm looking at the spine of a fat paperback I picked up in one of these offers some while ago and still haven't read. I don't think I'll miss the three-for-two. I tend to buy books because I feel like starting them on the day I buy them. It's difficult to extend that feeling beyond one book. And if the other ones are still sitting there unread a year later it's no comfort to know I got them cheap.


  1. Perhaps it would have vanished sooner had the 'free' third book been recorded as such in the listings!

  2. I'm with you on "the whole brevity thing", as the man said. I'm really starting to tire of a 8-13 batches of 50 minutes being the preferred TV format for a story that isn't particularly engaging. They should learn from things like Nurse Jackie.

  3. Based on my experience in London yesterday, I would rather buy one album that I really want from HMV for £15, than three from Fopp, that I am only vaguely interested in, for £5 a piece.

    An item's value is subjective and unrelated to its price.

  4. God, that's true. I remember that splurges in the Virgin Megastore in the early 1990s always seemed like a good idea at the time; but I'd have been much better off buying, say, Bringing It All Back Home by itself and giving it the attention it deserved.

  5. The Music Deals were great through the Nineties for one thing, updating what you had on vinyl toi cd, but was it really necessary.
    I'd agree with brevity, I have so many music bios bought at full price that I've never got round to.
    The problem is everything is so much easier now with ipod and internet.
    When I'm on the commute, things like The Word Podcast, 6 Music Documentaries etc on the Ipod are far more convenient, fix your need for all things music knowledge wise and carrying a book becomes unnecessary.
    The piles of music reference books on the shelves here, just gather dust.
    I hope it helps Waterstones, I can't see it though, the market is going the way of music and dvd and I don't see how that can be sustained.
    They'll make more money on what they sell, it's just that the sales will decline more than that through the competing media formats
    I own something like 15,000 physical albums and rarely switch the hi fi on.
    If you'd have told me that I'd be doing that a decade ago, I'd have thought you were mad.
    I suspect most serious music collectors are the same now, the big circle I know and am involved with are.

  6. 200 pages or so is about right for me. In the same way 40 minutes is my optimal album time. Anything two or three times longer is just overwhelming. Your post has also deactivated my interesting getting a Kindle. I love the feel of a book and it would feel slightly disloyal to get a Kindle. Can they easily co-exist, I wonder?

  7. I have an ipad and at first they do, but then the ease of the ipad takes over, just like playing an album did with cd and the ipod did with cv.
    Much as though we'd like to protect what we know and love, convenience always seems to take over.

  8. Re: Kindles and books co-existing. I read the Ledgard book in hardback and appreciated the typography. I also held it in my hand before I read it, which enabled me to get an idea of how much reading it would take. The Barnes book had not even entered my life until yesterday morning, when Giles Coren enthused about it in The Times. I immediately downloaded a free sample chapter to my Kindle, read it and then bought the whole thing for just over a fiver. I finished reading it this morning and then said to my wife, "You should read the new Julian Barnes book". She immediately produced the hardback copy she'd just bought me for our anniversary. "No point wrapping this," she said.

  9. Now and then, when somebody from the neighborhood book club picks a not very engaging 500-page book, I've considered trying to find a tee shirt with "Mega Biblion, Mega Kakon" on it. I suppose I lack the social courage to wear it the gatherings, though.

  10. I make documentaries, both feature length and 50 or 40 minutes, for TV. I made a 101 minute one for Ch 4 a few years ago, and remember it feeling way too long, even before I started. If you compare the number of events and locations in a 90-100 minute feature film, you have to have a hell of a lot of story to fill the time. I remember a lovely (ironic) review from Caitlin Moran, who called it a wonderful 50 min film. I couldn't have agreed with her more.

    The best thing I ever did was at 40 min, the perfect TV documentary length. By some bizarre quirk of scheduling, I was asked how long I wanted it to be as I was making it (this NEVER happens, in my experience) so I cut it to the length the story dictated. And of course, one of the greatest TV documentary series was of course called '40 Minutes'.

  11. I've just picked up a copy of The Slap. It felt heavy. Sometimes I long for heavy.