By December 15, 2011 1 Comments Read More →

Can Long Books Work in Book Groups? Part 1

I’ve been wading for months through The Story of Britain. Rebecca Fraser’s history from the Romans to contemporary times is–despite its billing in some quarters as a lighter narrative–rather dense. I like it, but I prefer not to knock out more than ten or twenty pages a day. For a book of nearly eight hundred pages, that makes for a long, slow read. I’d like to share it with others in a book group, and compare Fraser’s perspective on parts of British history with that of other authors. But it’s probably not to be: the book’s just impossibly long to assign to a group.

So it goes with a fair number of authors and subjects in book group land. Memoirs are popular with book groups because they cover a portion of a life and thus tend to be brief, but full biographies are difficult. Genres like science fiction, fantasy, and historical fiction–at least the epic work that constitutes the most discussable part of these genres–goes largely unaddressed. Many important novelists, because their books tend to be chunky, don’t make the selection cut.

I mourn the specific titles that don’t come to book group, but what makes me most sad about this phenomenon is that a steady diet of shorter books has an effect on readers. I’m reminded of Alexander Pope’s famous quote that “Some books are to be tasted, others are to be swallowed, and some few are to be chewed and digested.” The trouble is that readers accustomed only to short books, even very good short books, often lose the ability to digest something bigger. They may not read much beyond their book club commitment, and thus cannot find the time for any book that doesn’t make the group list. They may show a troubling tendency to make snarky comments about writers who “get paid by the word” or “need to find an editor.” They may scoff at all longer books as if they cannot possibly be worth the effort. I’ve seen these symptoms develop in many book group readers, and it’s time that we diagnose short-book syndrome as a real reading illness.  There’s a risk that we are training readers out of the attention span to savor long books. If we do that, we’re stealing something magnificent from them.

A good steady long-distance walk has pleasures that the most exciting dash can’t recreate. There is something thrilling about experiencing the panorama of a long biography or history. There’s a different kind of pleasure to seeing a dozen different plot lines tied together elegantly at the end of a long novel. Readers find a whole new level of enjoyment when the snowball of suspense rolls gradually down over hundreds of pages, growing into a leviathan that packs a wallop at the end.  There’s a sense of accomplishment in reading a long book that gives readers absolute confidence in their abilities.

To that end, I’m going to put on my thinking cap over the next week, and think about how we might introduce more long books back into the book group discussion list. I’ll be back next week with my thoughts on the subject, but in the meantime, I’d love to hear from Book Group Buzz readers about the methods you’ve used to get your readers to take on titles of epic proportions.



About the Author:

Neil Hollands is an Adult Services Librarian at Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia, where he specializes in readers’ advisory and collection development. He is the author of Read On . . . Fantasy Fiction (2007) and Fellowship in a Ring: a Guide for Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Groups (2009).

1 Comment on "Can Long Books Work in Book Groups? Part 1"

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  1.' Linda J says:

    My book discussion group has read both The Source (1000 pages) by James Michener and The Count of Monte Cristo (1500 pages). In both cases the group new several months ahead of time when we were discuss the book which I believe helped because we could start reading as early as we wished.

    I think it is interesting to note that although we could read any version of The Count, each member of the book discussion chose to read an unabridged edition.

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