Reading: venti, grande, or tall?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Do you read books of a different size at a different pace? Can you settle in and saw off 100 pages of The Brothers Karamazov, but nibble at The Old Man and the Sea a few pages at a time? Lily Hoang from HTMLGIANT writes about the difference between reading big books:

I find in reading big books, I allow myself to get more invested in the characters, I’ll sit longer, read hundreds of pages at a time, because even if I read a few hundred pages, there will be more. I did this with 2666 too, except I got so invested in the narrative I stopped reading entirely. I didn’t want to finish.

And small books:

These books, in comparison, are carrot sticks, a light snack. Now, I’m not saying anything about the quality of the writing or the books themselves. I just mean the way I approach these little books is radically different from the big books. Their brevity almost necessitates less investment.

I tend to read the big books faster simply because I'm afraid they'll eat up too much time.  I don't want to resent a book for taking me too long to read simply because it's long. I have a thing about finishing books, and I rarely if ever stop reading one entirely. Luckily, the really big books I've picked up lately have been good enough that they didn't feel like a chore.

But I also think that by their nature, the big books allow you to settle in and read long, uninterrupted passages. Unless it's The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (the biggest book on my shelf that I finally admitted I bought as a trophy), the author built the narrative in a way that carries you through long stretches.  I remember reading The Savage Detectives and being surprised to look up and find that I'd just finished 80 pages, because Bolaño's storytelling was so effortless. That's not to say the short books aren't, they're just more dense. The author made a deliberate choice to pack that world into a smaller space, and you have to move through it more carefully.

Maybe it's a lame comparison because I'm sitting here at 6:30 a.m. with my first cup of coffee of the day, but the difference is like drinking a 20-ounce Americano vs a shot of espresso.  It's easier to take a big gulp of that venti (after the requisite 10-minute waiting period so you don't scald your tongue) because you know there will be more; you don't feel like you have to savor every drop.  And you don't want to throw back that shot of espresso like a frat boy on his 21st birthday.  It's made that way so you can enjoy the minute complexity.