Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Reading generously

I like to complain about modern movies being too long. Ninety minutes is enough, most of the time, and three hours is usually just unnecessary. I also like to complain about books being too long. A little while ago, I finished reading a pleasant novella by Connie Willis called Uncharted Territory [1994], and I was all geared up to write a post about how that (17,500 to 40,000 words) really is the perfect length for science fiction.

And yet here I am reading Anathem [2008] by Neal Stephenson -- all 932 pages of it, plus glossary and appendices -- and having a great time. In part, precisely because it is so long.

I'm sure some of my willingness to give it a shot is down to trusting that Neal Stephenson will take me places I want to go. But part of it is that I consciously decided that I felt like immersing myself in a massive book. It probably doesn't need to be as long as it is, but before I even started reading I'd decided to consider its length a feature, rather than a bug.

I think sometimes it's worth reminding myself that there's an element of choice in the way that I read anything. As a deliberately extreme example, I can choose to read Dan Brown the way I read Cormac McCarthy, but I'm inevitably going to be disappointed. Or I can go in to that hypothetical Dan Brown novel completely aware of what it is, and what it is trying to be, and hopefully have some fun.

Perhaps that sounds like making excuses for bad writing. I don't think that's what I'm trying to say, though. I think I'm suggesting that I can accept averageness in one or more aspects of a novel, provided there are others that hold my interest. That may mean I'm a less discerning reader than I could be, but I hope it also means that I have fewer outright bad reading experiences than I might otherwise.

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