All the news this morning is the sale of Garth Risk Hallberg’s debut novel, City On Fire, for close to two million dollars. Every headline makes a point of pointing out that the novel is 900 pages. What’s that about? We seem to like everything else big… houses, cars, sandwiches, but when it comes to books, we get skittish.
Which made me think about long novels. I know they strike fear into the hearts of editors (even the binding is more complicated) and I know I’ve often thought that a book could have been edited, and that I’m not interested in “it’s great except for the middle hundred pages or “just get through the first ten chapters and it really takes off.” But what about a book that you never want to end? that you want to crawl off into a secret corner with and read until your eyes burn?
In 1936, were readers more willing to curl up with a 1037 page novel like Gone With the Wind (Warner Books got the paperback down to 1024)? I read that novel one summer at Camp Tekakwitha in New Jersey when I was ten (no, it was not in 1936) . We had one copy (it was a girl’s camp) and we sat in a circle and ripped the pages out one by one and passed them around.
John Dos Passos’s trilogy, U.S.A. (1937) at 1312 pages is another Depression novel that could go on forever without regret. Admittedly, I had to read that one for school but still it was worth every page.
Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy (1993), was a surprise bestseller, and at 1349 pages, one of the longest novels every pubished in the English language. Infinite Jest (1996), David Foster Wallace’s classic, clocks in at 1088 pages and the hardcover weighed 3.2 pounds. 1Q84 (2011) by Haruki Mrakami is a mere 944 pages.
I admit, 900 pages is a lot of book, but when it’s good, when every page counts, it’s unparalleled. I’m wishing Hallberg luck and if you’re still not convinced, don’t despair. You can always wait for the movie.