Now, I like big books and I cannot lie, but when I’m in my happy place (e.g. anywhere with a bookshelf) I can’t say I'm exclusively on the look-out for the chunkiest tome. The only time I really notice the size of a book is when it’s weighing down a bag strap on my shoulder… or when I’ve fallen asleep mid-read only to be awoken by it landing on my face. We’ve all been there right?
It wasn’t until Susanna Clarke’s book Piranesi was released that I realised: even if people aren’t judging books by their covers, a fair few are judging them by their spines. Clarke’s first novel Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell clocks in at almost 800 pages, and racks up close to 300,000 words across the book’s three volumes. It’s epic in story and scale; and going by the many comments on the book’s GoodRead’s page, it’s safe to say many of Clarke’s fans were surprised that her long-awaited sequel was so slight – coming in just shy of 250 pages – in comparison. Ignoring the fact that it was at least 80,000 words long – a completely average count for adult fiction – some even described trepidation in even starting something they had looked forward to for so many years, decrying it as – GASP – practically a novella. They were, it seems, completely blinded by size, and totally missing the point. They may have been written by the same author, but they are very different books, set in very different worlds, exploring very different themes. What they do have in common, however, is how beautifully written they are.
That’s the truly amazing thing about fiction – one book can elicit a myriad of responses, depending on who you ask about it. And depending on where you are in your day, week, month, or even year, you could be looking for any number of experiences. Quick reads that are with you only a day. Challenging tomes that you look forward to night after night. Or well-thumbed favourites that you can open at any page and still know exactly where you are in the story. Length isn’t an indicator of quality, it just means the author wrote more. Sometimes justifiably, like George Eliot’s Middlemarch, where each of its 800 pages advances the plot; and definitely less so with Stephanie Meyer’s overly-descriptive and under-edited Breaking Dawn. Shorter reads don’t come from lazy writers, but masters of their craft. Jean Rhys’ ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’, Toni Morrison’s ‘Sula’, and Shirley Jackson’s ‘We Have Always Lived in the Castle’ barely break 200 pages but none of the books leave you wanting. They are all incredible reads that, in-spite of their slight frames, reveal more of themselves each time I return to them.
Just like people, books come in all sizes. Some are terrible, it’s true, but a fair few can become your best friends.