Some Thoughts on Big Books – Part 1

After many ages, I finally finished reading The Way of Kings.

If you dwayofkingson’t know, The Way of Kings is a 1000-page fantasy novel by Brandon Sanderson, the first in what is expected to be a 10-book series of giant novels.

I should mention that my favorite series of books is The Wheel of Time, a 14-book series of 500+ page novels.

I should perhaps also add that I also immensely enjoy tomes by Dostoevsky. And the whale of a book, Moby-Dick.

There is something appealing about a thick volume, a sense of mystery and a promise of grand themes and plots. The best ones pay off these expectations. There is a depth of character, a complexity of world, a raising of stakes that can only happen if you have lots of room. Modern culture drools over well-written multi-season TV series. Well, big books and long series were doing that first.

There are at least two problems, however, with massive stories. First, a long book may just be, well, long. I mean, how many books really need 300K words? My guess is not as many as get published. More pages does not equate to good writing. There are short stories that contain more punch, beauty, and truth than plenty of mediocre novels. See Ray Bradbury, for instance.

Second, and more pertinent to me currently, is that I don’t often have the time to invest in such a book, not like I used to. The Way of Kings took me a long time to finish. Les Miserables took me years, reading on and off. Some of it is I don’t feel I have the right to set aside such large chunks of time to read like I used to. Besides being, like, a dad, I try to write and work around the house and spend time with my wife. I think I read slower than some people. Not tremendously slow, but steady.

So in recent years I’ve gravitated toward smaller novels. (Hence the Ray Bradbury reference above.) There’s certainly a lot to discover here, more than I think I expected when I was younger. Thin volumes jump out to me in the bookstore, now. I’ve  become more skeptical of giant fantasy series.

But finishing The Way of Kings reminded me of why I grew up reading these series. You can’t get 100 pages of payoff and climax in a normal-sized book. Will I read the sequel? Almost certainly. Right now?

Well…I don’t know. I saw The Wizard of Earthsea on a shelf somewhere. It’s calling my name. And at a slim 200-pages or so, it won’t take months to finish.

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  1. My favorite book is Lord of the Rings, which is also 1,000 pages long, so I can understand.

    Audiobooks can help with long novels. You can listen to them while doing other things.

    Also, Moby Dick is a classic with big themes, but a large portion of it is essays on whaling and whales that are (almost) randomly injected into the narrative. It could be shortened.

  2. The problem with audiobooks, for me, is they work best while driving, and I do very little driving now.

    As for Moby-Dick, when I read it, part of the coolness was the excessive information on whaling. It could be shortened, but I wouldn’t dare to. Dame with Les Miserables. It could be trimmed, which is why there are so many abridged versions, but the gigantic messiness and large detours is part of the personality of the book.