Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Books: Does Size Matter?

Are books just too large? A photo from Flickr by Queercatkitten reproduced under a Creative Commons License

I promised to fill in Friday’s post with a fascinating post about big books. Which I was going to write and post on a train. Unfortunately, said train was not only absolutely choccablock but full of singing drunk people, sharing their joy with the whole carriage. So this post might be rather grumpier than usual.

Reading Moira’s post about the bible recently, I felt a pang of recognition when she talked of her love of the physical object – the thin rice-paper quality, the crinkly pages, the little writing. Not that I’ve ever felt this about the bible, myself – but there were many books I loved as a child and teenager for their physical manifestation. I remember the softness and thinness of the paper. And how easy most were to hold and read…ok this makes me sound about a hundred years old, droning on about how much better things used to be in the time of the Penny Farthing. But, it seems to me, that books were nicer a decade or so ago. They were not all designed to double up as a handy doorstopper. The “slim tome” could even be admired for its own sake. In fact, I spent most of my time at university gravitating towards “slim tomes”. (Something to do with being traumatised by the 969,000 word “Clarissa” in my second year.)

Now, you’d be hard-pressed to even find a “slim tome” nestled on the shelves of many outlets.  There seems to be some unwritten myth that no one likes slim tomes anymore. People, so I’m told, want “value for money”. More words for their buck. And if you do end up mistakenly writing a “slim tome” it’ll end up being presented as a fat one, anyway.

“Look at this!” my friend said, hauling out a copy of a comedian’s autobiography. “You can’t even hold it open easily without your hands beginning to hurt”.

I looked inside. Thick paper, huge margins and extravagant spacing add the requisite bulking agent. It is an uncomfortable thing to hold and read. You couldn’t balance such a weighty object in the bath, for instance, or crushed against your pillow whilst you lie on your side. The only way to read this book is straight-backed and well-supported. Preferably with some kind of aid to help you hold the blinking thing.

Is it this obsession with size that feeds the idea of requisite wordcount? I remember when comedy novels – Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy for example, would happily come in under 70,000 words. When I was writing and submitting my novel the wisdom was that it had to come between 80,000 and 150,000.

Does anyone think The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie too short or that they haven’t got their “money’s worth” from Heart of Darkness?

Why should books be uniform? Some books are long, some are short. But what is the point of making a short one such an ordeal to read?

The other common habitat of the massive doorstopper  is the airport bookshop. Airport books seem nearly always to be massive  B-format trade paperbacks. Unlike the less expensive A format paperbook – the B format is larger in height and width and many inches thick. In other words, a nightmare to transport and the EXACT OPPOSITE of what you require when going on holiday.  It DOESN’T make sense, people! Surely, the very time you DON’T want a book the size of the Encyclopedia Britannica  and the weight of a small rhinoceros is when you are trying to cram it into your hand-luggage. It makes no sense at all.

I am maddened by these humdinger (or do I mean hummer-like?) books and resent being required to pay extra for the honour of having a book that’s painful to hold, impossible to read, and gives you backache if you have to lump it around with you anywhere.

And has this assertion that the only thing people want in airports is humungus books ever been properly tested ? Is it really that the reader requires “value for money” and buys a book by the kilo or is it more that the fancy B-format paperback  is more expensive, therefore it is what the publishers and retailers are wanting to push?

Rushing for my train before writing this, I was looking at the choice of paperbacks in the station bookshop and there was no choice in size – they were all massive. I might have bought one for the journey, but laden down by baggage as I was, there was no way it could be easily accommodated, resulting in a missed purchase from this reader.

It will be interesting to see how the digital revolution affects the length of books.  Bulk becomes an invisible element rather than on immediate show. Will the 80-150,000 rule still hold? Or will the novella suddenly find an appreciative audience? With many ebooks competitively priced at 99p, perhaps people will no longer see it in terms of literature by wordcount (or kilogram) and a wider range of lengths will be allowed to flourish.

I hope so.

People go on about the look of the book, the feel of the book and the evocative papery smell…that’s all very well, but if you have to be a professional arm-wrestler to even lift one, all that papery romanticising gets kicked into touch. The truth is that I have simply not enjoyed reading books these last few years. Not the physical aspect. They are uncomfortable to hold and uncomfortable to read and many do not hold open easily or are tough to wedge comfortably and stably whilst louging or loafing.

Ereaders may be less romantic and evocative, but at least the reading experience should be relatively hernia-free.

What is your view about this issue? Do you buy a book for its size? How long (and large) should books be and what do you look for in the physical experience?  Do you like a book to look like a brick? Do you have an ereader and how have you found it? Has it changed the reading experience for you? Let us know in the comments!

RosyB is a comedy writer. Her novel Sadomasochism for Accountants is a modest 87,000 words and she promises can be read in the bath, but her next is going to be shorter. You can find out more here.

13 comments on “Books: Does Size Matter?

  1. Books from Scotland
    November 4, 2011

    The trade paperback, or airside edition, is designed to be smaller and lighter than the hardback, and hence more portable – and is published ahead of the smaller paperback you long for. But it is an ungainly thing, and I much prefer smaller paperbacks and proper hardbacks.

  2. annebrooke
    November 4, 2011

    Great article, Rosy! I do really hate big books and absolutely long for those publishers out there to send me novellas to review – please! Someone has recently sent me a book that is over 1000 pages long (hardback, God bless it …) and I know I will never read it. Even knowing it’s lurking like a bad case of herpes in the house makes me want to weep …

    And I do really love my ereader (Kindle is my preferred one, though I also have a Sony) – strangely I love the feel and conciseness of it – it’s like a Tardis. So small and light, and so much classiness and excitement inside! Plus I can revolutionise my holiday packing (airport paperbacks? Soooo last century …) and make the font larger. Bliss!
    :)

    Anne
    xxx

  3. Chris Harding
    November 4, 2011

    I don’t mind a good fat book but what really annoys me is a ‘big book’ which could (and should) have been severely pruned. Writers of fantasy series are particularly prone to this (look at JK Rowling and Harry Potter). Having created their own magical world they seem to feel they must include every single detail about it, whether it’s relevant to the story or not, and they insist on continually rehashing plot lines etc from earlier volumes – if I need to be reminded of what happened in book one, I’ll read book one again, I don’t want to find it in books 10, 11, and 12…
    Another thing that makes me mad is a book that’s made to look bigger through the ploy of including an interview with the author, notes on research/inspiration, guidelines for reading groups and the first chapter of another novel from the same author…

  4. Janet
    November 4, 2011

    Speaking as a former librarian, the increase in size caused a headache for us, as older shelving systems could not easily be altered to take the larger format hardbacks and trade paperbacks, and even the so–called smaller paperbacks are bigger than older paperbacks. I think some of the increase in size was due to publishers wishing to have a more glamorous looking object, more room on the jacket for art work, never mind about the weight of the thing in the readers hand. I note that the quality of paper is ever poorer and turns yellowy-brown very quickly.
    I have recently acquired a Kindle, on which I think I read faster than a physical book, and its smaller too, more the size of the older paperbacks.

  5. Laura T
    November 4, 2011

    I’m coming from the opposite pole of this discussion, in that I love long books and can’t cope with short ones. :) (My general feeling is that more of a good thing is usually good, and I read slim novels so fast I never feel I have properly had time to sink into them). But I am in complete agreement with you on 1. Authors padding books to be longer than they should be, 2. Publishers padding books to make them look longer than they are with massive margins, font, spacing etc. There should be no requirement for a novel to be long, although as regards e-books, I wonder whether this will make the impact you expect, because I do think people have the idea that they want to get a good amount of reading for their money whether in e-book or paper form, and a lot, if not most, e-books, are still priced at paperback prices atm (excluding classics obviously).

  6. rosyb
    November 4, 2011

    Hmm, interesting thoughts and thanks so much!

    Laura, I get the impression there is a lot of more competitively priced ebooks. They can be self-published, but even for those that don’t go for that idea – there are a lot of out of print or back catalogue books going into this form and so there is going to be boggling choice at lower prices not far away I expect.

    And Janet, what an interesting observation about libraries. I agree about the paper quality too. I have trade paperbacks that looks like someone has been smoking all over them – yellowed and dirty looking – despite the higher prices. Yet I have books from the past that are soft and lovely and so easy to thumb through. I find a lot of books also get very bent in the spine and don’t seem to take a lot of reading – maybe because of their massive dimensions. But that’s just my subjective take and I could be wrong in the wider picture.

    Chris – is the adding of padding in terms of interviews etc an American thing? I don’t think I’ve seen that although I think other foxes have discussed it. Is it coming in over here, do you think?

    Books from Scotland – that’s interesting and thanks for commenting. I wonder why the far less portable trade is used in airports. Is it all about newness? Why can’t we have the cheaper version sooner? It really does seem to have changed.

    My hands get very sore trying to hold and hold open these massive tomes. Do publishers actually try reading these books in beds and baths and on beaches?

    I like a good long book too , sometimes. But I like them to then have thin paper and be a bit more managable. If A Suitable Boy was done in the style of some of these comedian biogs I’m describing it would be thicker than it was tall.

    Seems to be a lot of thumbs up for ereaders here including Anne (I didn’t know you had an ereader – where have I been?) Mind you I doubt they are a better choice for bathtime reading…;)

  7. Hilary
    November 4, 2011

    Short and light, please! Arms and brain both easily tired. Actually, that’s a bit over-simplified. There is a right size and length for a book, and the problem for me is when it outstays its welcome, either by being longer than it should be, or bigger/heavier than it might be. I know I’ve noted in a few reviews of older titles (Still She Wished For Company; The Feathers Of Death) that authors never seemed to be afraid of writing a <200 page novel if that was the right length for it.

    I miss small formats – a favourite door-stopping novel that I reviewed here recently is The Last Chronicle Of Barset and my beloved edition is one of the old small format Oxford World’s Classics hardbacks. I love them, and seek them out in second hand bookshops.

  8. Es
    November 4, 2011

    I like smaller, lighter books – I always wait for the paperback versions of new books unless I can nick them from someone to read to satisfy my curiosity before buying. Easier to carry about, read in the bath without armache and soggy pages.

  9. annebrooke
    November 4, 2011

    Ah, Rosy – I was one of the first people in the UK to get an ereader – I had one from a really awful UK company that I cannot name here as they are simply so bad (and still owe me money 3 years on!!…) before the Sony or Kindle were even thought of! I never read in the bath – it’s my quiet time :)

    Plus, on the other side of the equation, I make more money from eBooks than I’ve ever done on my paperbacks. And it’s brilliant for short story writers such as myself as publishers are more than happy to accept one estory rather than wait for a whole collection. A win/win scenario indeed :)

    Anne
    xxx

  10. john latham
    November 5, 2011

    An interesting question, but one which does not have an objective answer. I suppose writers should feel that the story should be the thing- if the content of the narrative demands a ‘Bleak House’ length they should not complain about the toil as it is its own reward. On the other hand, if you are as adept a writer as the author of ‘Pereira Maintains’ then there is no need to add one single more word to your manuscript than necessary. As for ebooks, writers must think about the kind of audience they want to have. It might be that they are happy with Kindle users lapping up cheap fare (and they may be limiting the demographic or class of the readers they will have as well as contributing to the wealth of a company that may be unhealthily powerful), or it may be that they want their book to be read by a discerning or traditional public- while it is not that simple, one would hope that the writers’ decisions were not motivated purely by money.

    Reading on a computer is not as much fun as reading off the page- especially if paragraphs are long and sentences as long as those of James in his late style, for example. I am a reader so I guess that’s what I would want- a writer producing something because they have a story they just cannot stop themselves from telling- but I admit that is a bit idealistic. As a reader I am happy to cart large volumes around as it is much pleasanter than paying to go to do exercise (a shockingly ridiculous concept), and slim books are good too as they can fit into bookcases and rooms which seem full.

    Many thanks,
    john.

  11. rosyb
    November 5, 2011

    Hi John and thanks for commenting.

    I think, though, that you may have slightly missed the key point of the article. I am not complaining about long books as such. Some books need to be long. And my favourite books of all (Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast and Titus Groan) are pretty chunky. But I have both these books with beautiful Peake-illustrated soft covers and gorgeous thin paper so they are still a pleasure to read.I can’t explain how lovely they are as objects – and many old books are like this.

    What I’m really complaining about is the fact that books are being bulked out and becoming bigger and bigger – huge margins, thick paper and are about as heavy as a boulder – then we are asked to pay more for the privilege, when most don’t need to be this way at all.

    I agree some books are a pleasure to read in physical form rather than on the screen, but – as I said – that reading pleasure is less and less to me now as the books published as so hefty and impractical. It’s like noone actually road-tests them.

    I think I’ll quickly bypass your discernment and class points ;) and the fact you so lightly equate traditional with discerning…I know you acknowledge it’s all a lot more complicated than that and I would certainly agree it is. I would have thought that the ereader revolution just means that the reader has to squirrel about more to find out what they like. I don’t really see the link between discernment, class and books the size of a door. I also don’t think you are limiting the “discernment” of your readers by not charging over the odds for an out-sized bulked-up book that that reader may not have asked for. I know a lot of people who use ereaders because they commute and they read an enormous number of books because they have a lot of regular reading time. I just wonder whether publishers have really researched the book size issue in terms of what people want and convenience. Or whether it’s all about reviewers, tradition of the hard-back and trying to impress for prizes. I really don’t know any of the answers but I would be interested to know the thinking and the evidence for that thinking as I can’t help thinking they (the publishers – or maybe it’s the booksellers, I don’t know) are missing a trick.

  12. sharonrob
    November 6, 2011

    I love fat books and slim ones and certainly don’t think I’m getting less value for money if a book is the latter. As people have said, some books need to be fat, others don’t. It all depends on what the author wants to achieve. What I’d like to achieve as a reader, is an enjoyable experience and having my tendons pulled till they feel like elderly knicker elastic adds nothing to that. I loved A Suitable Boy and am looking forward to re-reading it before A Suitable Girl is published. However, I’m dreading its heft. I didn’t think it was too big for the story it was telling, but it was too big for me personally; unfortunately, it’s not available in Kindle format. In my opinion, Vikram Seth is worth the trouble, but there are other authors I wouldn’t bother with if I could only access them in bulky paperback format.

    Given the number of people I’ve seen with e-readers recently, it seems that the idea of portable formats is very important for many keen readers. Reading isn’t something they want to leave at home; they want to take it with them so that they can make the most of the time they have when they are commuting, shopping, etc. It’s one of the reasons paperbacks became so popular in the first place, but as paperbacks themselves become bigger and more unwieldy, that advantage is being lost.

  13. Jackie
    November 9, 2011

    Now that I have a Nook ereader, I try to read all the super thick books on it & read regular sized books in traditional format. Those giant books are just to hard to hold, reading becomes a painful experience instead of a fun one. For instance, last spring I read Bill Bryson’s “Home” on my Nook, which was far easier than balancing a 600 page hardback.
    I have noticed the habit of putting book group questions, chapters of new books & author interviews in many paperbacks these day. Except for the interviews, I don’t think the other components are necessary & don’t understand the trend towards them.
    This was a good post, Rosy & of course, leavened with your quirky humor, an enjoyable read.

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This entry was posted on November 4, 2011 by in Entries by Rosy, Uncategorized.

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