Big Books Bad

After buying a US import copy of Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver almost as soon as it was released, I’m now ready to give up on it. I’ve read the first 200 pages, and I can’t stand the thought of another 800. It’s too damned dull.

Amazon is full of mixed reviews for the book. Plenty of people are of the same opinion as I am, namely that it’s a tedious slog. Others, who have liked the book, make macho statements like “recommended, but not to the faint-hearted” and belch tough-guy exhortations to “put in the effort.”

Well, nuts to that. The fact that they feel the need to trumpet their own heroic struggles to finish it is a) pretentious, and b) shows that no matter how worthwhile it may be in the end, it still is a slog. Don’t try to make me feel like a wimp for wanting to be entertained by a book I’ve laid out twenty quid for.

I’ve been stuck on it for four weeks now. Every time I want to sit down and read something, I take a look at its cover and ask myself: “can I really be bothered with another few pages, or will I just stare mindlessly into space instead?”

Staring into space usually wins. This is why I’ve only managed to get through 200 pages of it. And because I don’t like reading more than one (fiction) book at once, this is all the fiction I’ve read in that time. I feel constipated in the head. What a fucking waste of a month’s bus journeys.

This experience makes me less inclined to start reading any other big books. If I choose to invest my time getting involved with a set of characters and the world they live in, then I want a proportionate pay-back. I can easily make it through a short novel (300-400 pages, in the current publishing climate) in a week. I find that a nice, comfortable time to spend with a book. I love spending a lazy afternoon reading a novel cover-to-cover, but with a toddler running around the house that doesn’t happen very often. No, a week is fine by me.

But if I have to wade through six, seven, or eight hundred pages over the course of a fortnight or more, then that book had damn well better be extraordinary.

If the page count of a book were a measure of its quality, or of how much I am likely to enjoy it, then it would make sense to play those odds. I’d read more bigger books. But that isn’t the case. No matter how many reviews I scan or recommendations I get, I don’t know how much I’ll like a book until I actually read it. So by reading doorstops I’m actually reducing the average amount of enjoyment I derive from fiction. Hmm.

(If I take that argument too far, though, I’d end up reading nothing but short stories. That doesn’t work for me, either, so there’s clearly some happy medium to be found.)

My reading diet has recently consisted mainly of science fiction. I think it’s about time that I hunkered down with a few good 300-page mysteries. China Mieville’s 860-page Perdido Street Station is just going to have to wait. John Sandford has a new Prey book out, though, and Robert B. Parker has a new Spenser coming up next week. Reviews suggest that they’re good, but not the best in their respective series. But I know for certain that I’m going to enjoy them, and that their pleasure-to-effort ratio is going to be high. That’s what I want right now.

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4 Replies to “Big Books Bad”

  1. Oh dear. I wish I had read just two days ago, before I bought the book. Entertaining is high on my list of ‘must have’ -s when it comes to novels, so I’m worried.

  2. I know I have a book like that when I start skimming pages rather than following the sentences in a book. For example, I’m currently going through the latest Dune prequel (The Machine Crusade) and some of the subplot work is a bit tedious. Recently re-read “Soul Music” from the Discworld series, and found myself skipping entire subplots.

  3. Even before I finished reading your post I was going to recommend Perdido Street Station. I put off reading it for some time because of the size of the thing, but once I got into it (and it takes very few pages to get into it), it became one of those books that you can’t wait to get back to. And now I’ve just finished Miéville’s follow-up, The Scar. It too was wildly entertaining. Right now I’m reading a blissfully short book and I’m hooked again. It’s called The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon. It couldn’t be more different from Miéville (I like to shake things up). It’s about an autistic boy who plays detective to find out who killed his neighbor’s dog.

  4. I had a flick through Perdido Street Station last night, and just by scanning the dialogue I can tell it’s much more energetic than Quicksilver. Even random passages from the middle of the book grabbed my attention strongly enough to make me read the rest of the page. It’s a good sign, but I’m still going to let it sit for a while.

    I bought an omnibus edition of Harlan Coben novels on my way home from work today (containing Deal Breaker, Drop Shot, and Fade Away). It only *looks* like a 700+ page doorstop 🙂

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