Big Fat Books

Have you noticed this?

Books are steadily increasing in size, according to a survey
that has found the average number of pages has grown by 25%
over the last 15 years.

I have to agree but as the article in The Guardian conjectures, this may have something to do with the growth of electronic readers and digital editions. About ten years ago I experienced a painful strained wrist and coincidentally read The Tale of Genji: do you suspect there was a connection?

I have always treated big fat books differently from the more manageable volumes. Until fairly recently the size of the book was involved in my decision whether I bought the book or whether I requested it at the local library. Big books took longer to read, so to avoid those exorbitant library fines, I often would simply buy the book and take my time reading it.

When I got my first eReader (a Palm Pilot originally .. an iPad now) I tended to look for the big books in digital format to make it easier to hold and carry all those pages. Nowadays the digital format is my preference since I have such difficulty reading the small print in too many of the published paper and ink books.

I created and for several years hosted an online reading group on Yahoo called Big Fat Books (BFB). The idea was to selected books with more than 600 pages and take 3 months to read them (there was also a second selection for fast readers to fill out the quarter). Most reading groups have a fixed period to read a selection—often a month or even just two weeks—and big fat books were often not selected or were skipped by readers. Three months was a generous period and the group was moderately successful.

But The Guardian article by Richard Lea suggests all books are trending towards more pages and soon the concept of the big fat book might not be so special.

A study of more than 2,500 books appearing on New York Times bestseller and notable books lists and Google’s annual survey of the most discussed books reveals that the average length has increased from 320 pages in 1999 to 400 pages in 2014. …

For James Finlayson from Vervesearch, much of this shift can be explained by the industry’s shift towards digital. “When you pick up a large book in a shop,” he says, “you can sometimes be intimidated, whereas on Amazon the size of a book is just a footnote that you don’t really pay all that much attention to.” The rise of digital reading is also a factor, he adds. “I always hold off buying really big books until I’m going on holiday, because I don’t want to lug them around in my bag. But if you have a big book on a Kindle, that’s not a consideration.”

The literary agent Clare Alexander agrees that long books are more portable in electronic formats, but points out that much ebook reading is focused on genres such as romance, crime and erotica. For Alexander, the gradual increase in size is evidence of a cultural shift.

“Despite all the talk of the death of the book because of competition from other media,” she says, “people who love to read appear to prefer a long and immersive narrative, the very opposite of a sound bite or snippets of information that we all spend our lives downloading from Google.

Big books may be more convenient to carry on an electronic reader, but [Max] Porter isn’t convinced that digital reading is driving any increase in size, citing studies showing that only 60% of books bought electronically are ever begun, and completion rates that can fall as low as 20% for some titles. “A big book inhabits the space you’re in,” he argues, “it’s a physical embodiment of your intention to spend the time necessary to read it”. The contemporary novel’s increasing girth can instead be put down to a confident assertion of identity. “The novel has come into its own novel-ness. There so many demands on our attention, so many competing forms, that these novels have decided to relish being big and long, to demand that you sit in a chair, turn off your phone and devote some time to them.”

“This year has had its glut of big novels,” says Alex Bowler, the editor at Jonathan Cape who published Garth Risk Hallberg’s 900-page debut novel City on Fire in the UK. He says the increase detected by the Flipsnack survey isn’t reflected in what comes across his desk. “The high-profile books have seemed fairly long, but I’m not inundated with 200,000-word novels. Two-hundred-and-fifty to 350-page novels have been the majority of what I’m seeing on submission, and I suspect that’s also the majority of what’s out there.” …

The sense of value for money offered by a longer book used to be a consideration in the days of commercial sagas, literary agent Clare Alexander admits, and may still influence some readers today – but she says this desire for a substantial read doesn’t explain the growth in the literary novel.

“I would argue that a countervailing force is also in play with the revival of interest in the short story (also reflected in a growing and excellent prize culture) or the brief but perfectly formed novel.”

These days, the real struggle is publishing an unremarkably-sized book. “As an agent, the most difficult area now appears to be the middle. Mid-list, mid-career, middle-sized – in fact anything that’s middling.”

Although the audiences for this resurgence in long, satisfying reading is possibly a quite different audience, this current trend seems at odds to another observation that people, including readers, are experiencing a reduction in their ability to concentrate on anything for more than a few minutes or even seconds. Ever since the movie Flash Dance, the time spent on any individual scene has been reduced: watch anything nowadays and notice the way the scenes is broken up into short, rapid segments. Are books any different than movies?


Perhaps. I know I reader often to relax: settle down in a comfy chair with a good light and look forward to a couple of hours of quite enjoyment. But when I watch television (seldom) I often get up, move around, play with the dog, make a phone call, etc., just to keep busy and to fill up the time television fails to engage sufficiently (unlike a book).

You also hear about the percentage of people that never read a book again after they get out of school.

What’s the story here? Are we desiring longer and more compelling books? Is this paralleled by the strong interest in long, episodic television (or cinema like Harry Potter) series like Game of Thrones or Downton Abbey?

Do your crave big fat books or are you more involved in the recent resurgence of the short story? Inquiring minds want to know.

Here’s an article from 2009 about the growth of big fat books from the New Yorker.

4 thoughts on “Big Fat Books

  1. I am a lover of the long, immersive book. I’m a big fan of “Moby Dick”and “War and Peace”. My current big read is a two volume biography of Napoleon. However, I often read more than one book at a time, and read shorter works late at night, when the eyes are a little tired.


    1. I’ve been scheduling at least one big book each month with an eye on reducing my lifelong embarrassments and paring down the old bucket list. This month I’m planning on reading the final two books of Roth’s Mercy of a Rude Stream assuming there is time after the reading pool is exhausted (note: list includes a couple of fatties like the Oates: how does she write so much). If there’s still time I like to go wild and read a few juicy detective novels, especially one’s with scantily clad dames in distress on the cover (better than Fabio, right?).

      I’m teeing up a few Powys morsels for the future; have you read John Cowper Powys?


      1. Yes, most of his works. I live I Devon, next to Dorset in which Weymouth Sands” is set. His books are exemplary examples of the long, immersive read.


  2. Though a large book can be a bit hard on the wrist, I do enjoy how complex a plot can get in a longer book. It’s just not the same, somehow, when the story is broken up.


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