Long Books and Our Attention Span

An article in Publishers Weekly linked me over to a blog on The Daily Beast, written by Marc Wortman. The blog was about contemporary books being too long, and the writer’s theory was that books are becoming longer and longer mainly to beef up e-book prices. Now, I’m not sure if that’s the case. I don’t think books are long because editors are too lazy to chop them down, or because the authors have huge egos and want to profess to the world that they have written enormous tomes.

The writer of the blog uses examples of nonfiction books to back up his point that books today are far too long. In my eyes, a nonfiction book should be long. If you’re doing research, or even just reading nonfiction for pleasure, you want the book to contain depth. You want there to be a lot of references and footnotes, so that at least you know the information is validated and not just random facts that came off the top of the author’s head.

But as for fiction, it’s understandable that you might want a book to be shorter. You might not want to get bogged down in all the tiny details of the setting, or read pages and pages of backstory that may not be entirely relevant to the main plot.

Interestingly enough, it does feel like YA novels are getting longer and longer these days… and many of them are trilogies, which demand an even longer attention span. (Or at least a longer memory; for me it can be hard to remember all the events of the book while waiting for the second and third volumes in the series to come out.) It can be argued that teenagers have the shortest attention spans of anyone else.

But since the Internet is such a pervasive force in our lives, all of our attention spans are getting shorter by the day. There’s a phenomenon called “popcorn brain,” which is “a brain so accustomed to the constant stimulation of electronic multitasking that we’re unfit for life offline, where things pop at a much slower pace,” according to CNN’s Elizabeth Cohen. It’s no wonder we have no patience or time to read through a 600-plus-page biography of Steve Jobs.

I personally think that people who read a lot have longer attention spans anyway; reading seems to be an activity that actually lengthens attention spans. People who have shorter attention spans typically don’t enjoy reading as much; they probably prefer to do other things. But that’s only a theory I have.

So what do you think? Are books getting too long? Do you often read long books?

17 thoughts on “Long Books and Our Attention Span

    1. Absolutely – Stephen King’s books seem to get longer and longer as they go… and the Harry Potter books got progressively longer and longer. Thanks for the link!

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      1. Testify! Just waded through 11/22/63, and it felt at least 300 pages too long. I couldn’t help but think Bolaño’s celebrated 2066 might have been a lot shorter if it’d been published per-humously…

        The flipside would be something like Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, where the length feels like a product of her incredible research.

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        1. I’ve been wanting to read 11/22/63, only because it’s by Stephen King and he’d have an interesting take on the subject matter. But sometimes his books do tend to drag on and on…

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  1. Although I like biographies, they can sometimes be dry, so I have a hard time getting through them. I end up having to take a break with a shorter fiction book.
    I agree with you though Maggie, I think the detail is important to the subject matter. I have to say, however…I didn’t have any problem getting through the long Harry Potter books! 🙂

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    1. Biographies are good; it’s just that some of them are more academic-sounding and others are more of the “read this for pleasure” type.

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  2. I can and do read long books fom time to time, but I am more impatient than I was when I was younger. Not that I rush, but I am quicker to toss somethig if I don’t like it.

    I remember a couple of fantasy trilogies where I got well into the second book before I decided it wasn’t for me. I’d make that decision more quickly today. But is that internet-related short attention span, or just that I’ve read more and am more confident in my preferences? Who knows?

    I thought The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was about 200 pages too long, but that certainly didn’t hurt the sales, or the sales of the sequels.

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    1. I’m like that with fantasy novels; they have to really grab me, and if they don’t, I put them down midway through the second or third book in the series when I start getting bored or disillusioned. I don’t think it’s a matter of attention span in that case… I think it’s just that the book ceased to be interesting.

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      1. I think one problem is that everybody expects fantasy stories to be trilogies (or longer series) these days, but not all stories have the potential to be that long. So, consciously or not, the author may stretch the story to fit the expectation (or there may be pressure from the publisher to do so). There was a discussion of this over at YA Indie: http://bit.ly/Kvq0es

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  3. Maggie, your post is just demanding I comment, and sadly, I’ve got quite a bit to say.

    First, when it comes to paper books, each page increases the cost of the book, and unless the book is written by a solid writer with a strong track record, the higher the price, the fewer the sales. This, in fact, is why most publishers aren’t willing to even look at first-timer’s book which is over 120k words any more.

    Side step: The reasons for the length of a book seldom include “laziness on the part of the editor”. I’ll give you that some writers don’t know when to stop, but let me ask you, “when was the last time you wrote something, finished it, and then kept going just to pad the word count? That’s high school stuff. No, I trust your integrity as I trust mine. The book is as long as it takes (and no longer) to tell the story and wrap it up in a satisfying way,

    Ebook prices? Maybe, but that sounds like a self-fulfilling doom. Why bog a book down with dead prose just to make it longer? Again, I am reminded of hitting the word-length requirement for an essay. Too, if the cost of eBooks starts meeting or reaching the cost of printed books, something’s got to give. That is not to say that once eBooks become the norm, the prices won’t rise, but we’ve got some time for that, yet.

    As for non-fiction books, they, too, should be as long as then need to be, not summarily expanded. For me, a really good non-fiction book should be a reference volume for the shelf to be consulted from time to time.

    Tell you what, though, don’t ask my why I don’t believe that non-fiction actually exists. OK?

    I am surprised by your statement that you might want a fiction book to be shorter. Why? Certainly a book that is padded (there’s that word again) with passages which drag their feet rather than moving the story along should be ejected, and going on forever about the shape of the protagonist’s ear–unless that is an important plot piece–is a waste of time, and of flow, and of pace, and of the entertainment value of the book. But shorter? The books I really love are always by far too short. And that includes some of the mega-volumes out there by King, Heinlein, Stross, and many, many more. If I have invested myself in an author, I want to get my money’s worth, and that means reading for a long time.

    I celebrate the fact that YA novels are getting longer. This suggests, to me, that we may be seeing a pull back from the twitter (140 character) world of texting for a more satisfying and enduring world of the longer novel.

    There isn’t a lot of character development in 140 characters, but you can get to know several people quite well in a long book. You can get an idea of what motivates them, and in turn take a look at what motivates you. Reading, even fiction, is a very strong educator.

    I fully agree with you that readers have a longer attention span. However, a study I read two years ago suggests that some 80% of college graduates never read another book after they leave school. That is sobering. It does suggest our audience, those who would like to read a substantial story, is dwindling.

    Guess I’ll shut up, now. After all, people don’t like to read long posts or long comments, now, do they? (grin).

    Thanks for posting this one. It sure got my engine running.

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    1. Books we really love always seem to be too short. There are a bunch of really good ones I wished would go on and on…

      I like that YA novels are getting longer, too. Glad that teenagers are getting back into reading. 🙂

      “80% of college graduates never read another book after they leave school.” < That is sad and rather shocking.

      Thank you for your comment!

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    2. Not a single book ever again? Would that include e-books these days? How long after they graduated were they surveyed? If only two or three years for most of them, I wouldn’t be too worried.

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  4. I definitely agree with you here, especially when you say that novels should be shorter – I can’t read a very detailed fiction book. As for the YA authors, I think that’s more of a publicity thing because they want to hold suspense for the reader. However trilogies usually involve new story ideas so I’m not against them.

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    1. I do think YA trilogies are a marketing tool a lot of the time… it’s better to have an author who has more than one book up his/her sleeve than who is a one-hit wonder.

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  5. I would have to do research to back this up . . . but I don’t want to . . . so I’m just going to toss it out there.

    I read all the Harry Potter books. My recollection is that the length of each exceeded the length of its predecessors ~ with the last book being twice as long as the first.

    As for the “why” . . . I’ll leave that speculation to others. 😀

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  6. Interesting post as are the comments above. My own experience is teenagers do not seem to mind getting through long books aimed at themselves which is good. Certainly as an adult with a demanding job and time at a premium most fiction books I read on my commute are in the 100-120K region. I do read longer books but thinking about this right now I appear to leave them for last thing at night and just work my way through them at a leisurely pace. They can be difficult if the author is simply waffling around the plot. So as long as the story holds my attention though length is not an issue for me. It is quality that counts.

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