What Makes a Book

I walk through bookstores and find myself picking up volumes of fiction–Nicole Krauss, Rebecca Wells, Anthony Doerr–and flipping to the end.  I’m counting the pages.  How long is a book, I wonder.  What is too long?  Too short?

I’m a very discriminating reader.  I don’t say that to brag; in fact, I’m embarrassed that I’ll quit a book after two pages if I’m not interested.  But when I am interested in a book, I fall in love.  Thirty pages and I’m smitten. From Jonathan Franzen to Emma Donoghue to Charlotte Bronte, when I start a book that I love, I think it’s the best thing ever and insist that everyone else read it and likewise fall in love.  But more often than not, that passion dissipates by the last quarter of a book.  I feel like the author tries to hard to tie things together; he or she so wants to create this world within the novel’s pages that the book is too long.  Rarely have I felt that a novel worked perfectly from beginning to end.  Maybe Nicole Krauss’s “History of Love.”

Short story collections, on the other hand, don’t try to create worlds.  Each story, on its own, represents a glimpse into a life; it doesn’t aim to represent the entire life.  Maybe that’s why I love collections like Doerr’s “Memory Wall” or Lahiri’s “Unaccustomed Earth.” They end with the same momentum with which they began.

Ah, so, my own novel attempt.  I am almost finished with the fifth chapter.  It comes out to over sixty pages.  This feels like a lot when I’m working, reflecting on everything I’ve done,  but not when I stand in the bookstore, thumbing through “short” works of over two-hundred pages.  Then I think about the filler–those twenty, thirty, fifty pages that weigh down otherwise impressive books–and tell myself I’m doing fine.

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