Is 500+ pages ever the right number?

A recent post by an incognito publisher asks us to name a book with more than 500 pages that sustains the reader’s interest for its entire length. Despite my oft-repeated grizzling about the length of books I didn’t think it would be that hard to find one.

The task proved more difficult than I thought not least because I don’t always know how many pages books have. Anything I’ve read within the last 10 years or have owned a copy of – however briefly – within that same time period appears in my database (yes I am nerdy enough to have a database and be cross that it didn’t exist earlier in my life) but I haven’t always noted the page count and for anything read before that I’m using pure guesswork. And of course I read a lot in audio format which doesn’t neatly equate to page counts.

Mechanics aside though it’s still a bloody difficult task.

I always say Stephen King’s THE STAND is one of my favourite books of all time (though I haven’t re-read it for 25 years) despite my belief that if it lost half its page count it would only gain in quality. And that was before King released his Author’s Cut version in which when famous enough to do so he released a version of the novel containing the 400-odd pages his publishers made him take out first time around. That is the precise moment I lost interest in reading Mr King’s work. Talented storyteller he may be but THE STAND was not improved by the addition of 20 highly repetitive pages depicting a schizophrenic pyromaniac mumbling to himself and lighting more fires. Nor by any of its other additions.

I read an enjoyed all three of the Stieg Larsson trilogy installments but all of them could easily have survived with 100+ fewer pages and I recall even suggesting which pages could be cut from THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO.

I liked Tana French’s IN THE WOODS but its ponderous length (my version was 608 pages) has put me off reading any more of her books despite owning two of them. Every time I look at them on my TBR shelves I groan at the thought of such length and choose something different to read.

I also liked Jo Nesbo’s THE REDBREAST but could easily have done without all the flashbacks to wartime in the trenches (the repetition was unnecessary) and, as with French, I am put off reading more of his novels because they make it seem like the author is paid by the word.

I’m guessing that Elizabeth George’s CARELESS IN RED is a brick in physical form because it is the second longest of any audio book in my library. Here’s how I opened my review “I struggled through this book primarily because of its length. At 23 hours and 15 minutes it’s a lot longer than the average audio book which in itself wouldn’t be a bad thing but there is not 23 hours and 15 minutes worth of story to be told“. ‘Nuff said. For the record the longest audio book in my library is Anthony Trollope’s CAN YOU FORGIVE HER at 28 hours and 7 minutes. Of course that is way too long also but from memory I bought it specifically because of its length to consume on some long-haul flights.

Some possible winners?

Ariana Franklin’s MISTRESS OF THE ART OF DEATH is eligible for consideration and in my review I said “Although it runs to 502 pages I gobbled up this book in a couple of settings“. I don’t remember any feelings that fewer pages would have made a better reading experience in this instance. I rated Liza Marklund’s RED WOLF (508 pages) and Christos’ Tsiolkas’ BARRACUDA (513 pages) both very highly too and similarly don’t recall any sense that less would have been more on either occasion.

Overall though I can’t vehemently disagree with Agatho’s premise. For me at least 500+ pages is almost always too long.

Whenever I think about book length I am reminded of my favourite history tutor whose first assignment was for us to write a 2000 word essay. After we had all dutifully submitted them he gave us our second assignment: to answer the exact same question but in half the words. I can remember hating him for a while but that assignment, and the others he set that creatively taught us to say more with less, have proven invaluable over the years. I often wish more writers had been taught the same lesson.

What about you? Any thoughts on book length as it pertains to quality? Do you actively avoid books with a high page count? Or do you love them?

 

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29 Responses to Is 500+ pages ever the right number?

  1. Kathy D. says:

    I groan if a book is over 400 pages. I just read three in that category: The Silkworm (450 pages) by J.K. Rowling; The Secret Place (450 pages) by Tana French and The Paying Guest (565 pages) by Sara Waters.
    I could not put down The Paying Guest. Read it quickly. It’s easy to read.
    I agree with you on The Mistress of the Art of Death, fascinating, and Red Wolf, also unputdownable. I read the Larsson trilogy and while I stayed up all night to read those
    books, they could have used more editing and cutting. Also, some of the gruesome stuff
    could have been cut out or shortened.
    I thought Nesbo’s Nemesis excellent, even if long, could not put it down.
    And I will not read either The Luminaries or The Goldfinch on principle, because
    they’re over 800 pages and I’m not going there.
    I’m about to dig into a friend’s newly published book, which is 450 pages. I
    think it’ll be riveting.
    But I request no more than 400 pages for a mystery, unless it’s absolute
    top literary quality and unputdownable — and I can’t live without reading it.

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    • I have zero interest in The Luminaries for the same reason Kathy (I’m no fan of Donna Tartt since wading through The Secret History so there was never any danger of me picking up another of hers). Interesting that you gobbled up the Sara Waters book though – I eyed it off at the library but left it behind as it was huge (a hardback of that length is too heavy for someone who carries her books on her back).

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  2. diana says:

    I love reading a big fat book…it gives me such a sense of comfort to know I can relax into this world, with all these people and stay there for quite some time ….

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  3. If the premise interests me I’m not intimidated by any number of pages under 1000, however I agree that there aren’t that many books that can sustain that length.

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  4. Kathy D. says:

    1,000 pages? I might as well read War and Peace, which I should anyway at some point, but
    read 50 pages a day.
    I read Sarah Waters’ book in paperback.
    There are people who are very fast readers. I was that way once, not any more. Aging
    eyes, etc.

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  5. Norman Price says:

    Bernadette, I think the translators are paid by the word eg Stieg Larsson.
    It is the font size and the content that determines whether I can tackle a long book. Those later Reginald Hills are big books but large fonts and great characters make up for the length. Of course Agatha Christie kept her books to around 250-300 pages, and sold a few.
    I loved the Inspector Lynley Mysteries on TV [addicted to Sharon Small] but the sheer length of the Elizabeth George books means I have never read any.
    I agree Mistress of the Art of Death by the late Ariana Franklin was very good, I never realised it was that long.

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    • realthog says:

      I loved the Inspector Lynley Mysteries on TV [addicted to Sharon Small]

      I liked the series for exactly the same reason — she’s brilliant in the part.

      I read one of the novels and spent about 500 pages being severely irritated. I have a couple of the others on the shelf (one, if I recall aright, is ~800 pages!), but I’m not sure I’ll ever read them.

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  6. Bernadette – I couldn’t agree more. As I think back on the books that have meant the most to me and really stayed with me, there’s none that’s over 400 pages. I’ve richly enjoyed some longer books (like the Ariana Franklin novels) and there’ve been others that I’ve thought were good reads. But honestly, I believe books do not need to be long to be really absorbing.

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  7. tracybham says:

    I prefer books to be under 400 pages. (Actually I prefer them under 300 but I would really screen out a lot if I stuck to that.) However, I did read about 6 or 7 books over 500 pages in the last year and I enjoyed all of them. Katherine Howell’s 2nd book, The Darkest Hour, was 495 in the edition I read and that is right on the edge. Of course, her books are very fast paced. I did enjoy I am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes at 604 pages. I have to really be convinced an author is worth it to make the effort though. I keep putting off long books though.

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    • You’re right about that Howell book Tracy – that’s long for her – all the others are around the 300-350 mark. I don’t remember that one feeling too long but it is getting close

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  8. realthog says:

    I’m with you in principle, and as I delve ever deeper into my dotage I find myself opting more and more for shorter books. (After all, in my formative years plenty of novels were 160pp or less, while 256pp was a biggie.) That said, however, I do find that quite often I enjoy longer novels. Last year two of my favorites were over 600pp: Joel Dicker’s The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair and Ariel S. Winter’s The Twenty-Year Death, while one of my favorite crime novels of all time is Iain Pears’s An Instance of the Fingerpost at ~700! There are lots of other examples.

    It says something for Tana French’s In the Woods that I could have sworn it was more like 300pp than 500pp, but you’re right!

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  9. Belle Wong says:

    I’ve never been particularly put off by big books, but then again, I will skim through sections that are slow, which might explain my tolerance. I enjoyed the earlier Elizabeth George books but there were definitely parts I skimmed. Big books I read without feeling any need to skim are Stephen King’s 11/22/63 (you said you haven’t read King for quite a while, Bernadette, but if you’re feeling like giving him another go, this is the one I recommend. It’s a beautiful book and not like any of his others) and Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (another really beautiful read).

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    • Belle Wong says:

      I just thought of another one I loved (but I had to check to see if it was more than 500 pages – different page counts for different editions, but it looks like it is somewhere between 518 and 545 pages). Reginald Hill’s A Cure for All Diseases. I have listened to this one in audio so many times, it’s become a comfort read. It’s hands-down my favourite of the Dalziel & Pascoe books.

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      • I will put the King book on the “consider further” list thanks Belle. As for the Reginald Hill book you’re right about that one – and several of his others are on the long side but I don’t notice

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  10. Keishon says:

    Well, I did enjoy Diana Gabaldon’s OUTLANDER series (obv not mystery) and with the three I read was about 1,500+ pages. While they did keep my interest, I could have did without some scenes/repetition but for the most part they were entertaining (first three). I’ve always been told that books that go on for that length or more (500+ pages) are said to be of good quality because why would a publisher invest that much money time/effort into them? *shrug* I did try to read The Luminaries and was bored and DNF.

    With Nesbo’s work, I admit to being sometimes surprised that his books are over 500 pages long when I finish reading them. They usually read fast for me. Agree about Stieg Larsson’s books. Loved Ariana Franklin’s books (miss her and am reading her new one that her daughter finished after she died). *this comment is all over the place, my apologies.*

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    • don’t apologise for being all over the place – I like getting thoughts straight from people’s brains – no filters 🙂

      I wish I was better at using my eReader as then I wouldn’t be put off by the size of books glaring at me from my shelves

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  11. Perfect way of posing the question, and really got me thinking. I have loved some long books: one that sticks out was Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy – didn’t want it to end, would happily have read another 1500 pages (which is how long it is). I loved Donna Tartt’s Goldfinch, and thought it needed some length, but maybe not as much as she gave it. But even books I love – there are very few that I wouldn’t shorten a bit if I got the chance, if I’m really honest. I should have been a book editor – I’m always longing to take my red pencil to books. (for all kinds of reasons, not just length.)

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  12. Rebecca says:

    I’m a bit more haphazard with my reading spreadsheet so I’d have to do more digging to verify page counts. I think I can say with certainty though that I almost always find a more contemporary 300+ page book has some slow spots, and while I adore some older triple-decker books, I tend to skim when I’m bored.

    Also, I just ordered the first Ariana Franklin: thanks!

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  13. Marianne Wheelaghan says:

    Hey Bernadette, I used to think I preferred chunky big books but then I came across an article about the average length of books and noticed that my two favourite books out of the list they quote are very short novels, namely Slaughterhouse-Five and We Have Always Lived in The Castle. I suppose as long as the novel keeps me engaged, I’ll read it, regardless of length. I was gripped by Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood but bored by Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy. (I hate padding in any novel, though). By the way, Margaret Atwood also has a team of researchers work for her and I heard not that long ago they were rebelling because they wanted more recognition of their part in the creation of her novels. Not sure what happened but don’t think they got it.

    http://blogs.publishersweekly.com/blogs/PWxyz/2012/03/06/the-average-book-has-64500-words/?utm_source=Publishers+Weekly%27s+PW+Daily&utm_campaign=dc3ffe1933-UA-15906914-1&utm_medium=email

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  14. laura says:

    I’m not a huge fan of the ‘big’ book, as they rarely sustain your interest. I will give Barracuda credit though (even though I was fairly repulsed by parts of it). The Slap didn’t work as well for me.
    In reading a long book I always feel like I could’ve read two great books so am loathe to invest the time in an epic.

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    • I think that “what else I could be reading” feeling is what gets me too Laura.

      And I thought the slap utterly terrible – I know it’s almost un-Australian to say but I’ve never been so pleased to close the cover on the last page of a book.

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      • laura says:

        It really didn’t do it for me either… Not un-Australian at all. I think that some of the behaviour in the book, whilst representative of a small portion of people, was on the whole, not the reflective of the values and attitudes that have come to define us.
        Whilst he is a talented writer I probably won’t read him again because of the awful anger that seems to permeate his work.

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        • I find it fascinating that there is so much of that in his work but whenever I see or hear him interviewed he does not seem nearly so angry. I guess it’s true that for some writers at least they can release their emotions in their work.

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  15. Gary Thaden says:

    2666: A Novel by Roberto Bolaño. If you want to race through 800+ pages, don’t bother. If you have patience and want to be caressed by language, this is the book for you.

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