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Does the Size of a Book Suggest Significance?

Thursday 4 June 2015

JUNE 2, 2015

Each week in Bookends, two writers take on questions about the world of books. This week, Mohsin Hamid and James Parker debate whether more is necessarily more.

By Mohsin Hamid

“Efficiency” is a terrible word to apply to art. Yet I think an artist can choose to value efficiency.

When I was a child, living in a Pakistan with no Internet, no FM radio and only one television channel, which broadcast for but a few hours a day, I adored big books, like “Dune”; big stories comprising multiple books, like “The Chronicles of Narnia”; and above all, big stories built from multiple big books, like “The Lord of the Rings.”

Perhaps this was because I had time on my hands. Summers in Lahore — when school was out and temperatures hovered in the hundred-and-teens and the purchase of an ice cream cone or a book marked the maximum possible extent of consumerist distraction — were long. Shops didn’t carry imported goods at affordable prices. We didn’t own a VCR until I was 15. Local cinemas rarely showed films I wanted to see. So books were my lifeline to the outside and other worlds.

But as I grew older, my levels of busyness and what today might be called connectivity both increased. In high school and college there were girls to pursue and intoxicants to sample, hidden places to explore late at night with friends. There was work to be done: essays to write and exams to prepare for, problem sets to complete, sports drills to run. The map of my life had fewer blank spaces for books to fill.

I still read a great deal. In my teens and 20s I encountered such classics as “Middlemarch” and “Frankenstein,” “The Brothers Karamazov” and “The Fall,” “One Hundred Years of Solitude” and “Ficciones.” But post-childhood it was the smaller works among these pairings that I loved more, that I continued to read again and again. It took me weeks to devour “Moby-Dick” for the first time and only a weekend to imbibe “The Great Gatsby.” But over the course of my life I have spent far longer in West Egg than I have aboard the Pequod, for I have never returned to Melville’s creation, while Fitzgerald’s entices me back every few years.

I do not think that less is necessarily more. But I don’t think that more is necessarily more, either. Mine strikes me as a commonly held perspective in most places I travel to. In the United States, however, I have often heard the view that bigger is indeed better when it comes to serious works of literature, heard this view often enough to be puzzled.

Where does this inclination come from? Are more nuclear weapons better? Taller skyscrapers? Girthier biceps? Larger bank balances? Perhaps. But for some of these examples, in some cases, some of the time, some among us might well say, um, no.

“Efficiency” is a terrible word to apply to art. Yet, one sentence hence, and this shall serve as my sole warning to you, I am about to apply it. I think an artist can validly choose to value efficiency, to seek to do as much as possible with as little as possible. In fact, given the constraints all around us — the finiteness of time in a human life, of nature’s tolerance of our abuses, of available food and energy and clean drinking water — an aesthetic of leanness strikes me as just as appropriate to literature, and to one’s existence, as an aesthetic of expansiveness.

This does not mean that a story the length of a tweet should be our highest literary art form. Or that the couplet or the haiku should supplant the novel. It simply means that there are different sources of power a work of fiction can draw upon, and the duration of the immersion involved in a single reading from cover to cover is only one of them.

Of little, to make much: That is the dream of a human life. And it is the dream as well of many of those dreamers we call writers, including those who, over the centuries, have given us a wealth of brief but not minor works, small in size but vast in scope.

Mohsin Hamid is the author of three novels: “Moth Smoke,” a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award; “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” a New York Times best seller that was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and adapted for film; and “How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia,” a winner of the Terzani Prize. His latest book is an essay collection, “Discontent and its Civilizations.”

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By James Parker

A book that starts with an asthmatic getting punched is not going to be 500 pages long.

Size and significance have got all tangled up — in my mind, anyway. And in combination they tend to turn me off. The sizable significant book I am currently not reading is Karl Ove Knausgaard’s “My Struggle.” I am not reading it with some earnestness. Dear friends and respected colleagues are urging it upon me; I’ve been sent links, watched Knausgaard being interviewed, enjoyed his bony elemental face as it hangs in gulfs of admiration. His book is very long, very famous. I feel the pressure of its size and significance. Soon it may join my special list: “War and Peace,” “Remembrance of Things Past,” “Ulysses,” “A Suitable Boy,” “The Recognitions,” “Infinite Jest.” . . . Anything could happen, of course — a convalescence, an internment — but under current conditions I don’t see myself ever reading these sizable significant books. Philistinism? Critical truculence? Not at all. It’s my manly compact with finitude, the deal that Time and I have struck: Life is short, “The Recognitions” is long. (And difficult, I’m told.) I’ve read “Moby-Dick.” I’ve read Carlyle’s “The French Revolution.” I might even read that again, at some point. But I’ll be dead one day, and you can bounce copies of “Infinite Jest” off my sinking coffin. Nobody reads everything.

Size matters, indeed it does. Size in books is like volume in heavy metal: It speaks of power. Would we love “The Lord of the Rings” as much if it weren’t so awesomely misty-mountain massive — if it were little and hobbity like “The Hobbit”? I don’t think so. On the spectrum of sizability, “The Lord of the Rings” sits at the exact midpoint between pulp size — the sci-fi/fantasy whopper, monument to imaginative inflation — and literary size (George Eliot-style grandeur). But be they solid pulp or high art, the truth is that big fat books just contain more book-carbs. We can munch on them for days, weeks, comfort feeders, ruminant readers at peace. Padding for the mental life, so to speak. I once dropped a copy of “Martin Chuzzlewit” in the sea; when it dried out it was even larger and puffier, and I cherished it even more. You don’t get that kind of pleasure with a Kindle. Smallness matters too: the short, sharp shocker, the Filet-O-Fish. Muriel Spark’s “The Driver’s Seat,” at twice the length, would have half the impact. Its nastiness is narrow; it is mean with detail, spitefully pared down. Amplitude and range would not suit it. Or Nicholson Baker’s “The Mezzanine”: 142 pages is probably about as much as we can take of that particular strain of brilliance. I suppose I should mention Twitter, since we’re talking about length, compression, and so on. I hate Twitter. There, I mentioned it.

My grandfather, in the last years of his life, would claim that on his night stand he kept only poetry and the novels of Richard Stark. Anything else, he said, took too long to get to the point. “When the bandages came off, Parker looked in the mirror at a stranger.” That’s the first line of Stark’s “The Man With the Getaway Face,” from 1963 — comparable in economy of expression, certainly, to the first line of T. S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding”: “Midwinter spring is its own season.” The first eight Parker novels all start like that.

“When the woman screamed, Parker awoke and rolled off the bed” (“The Outfit”). “When the guy with asthma finally came in from the fire escape, Parker ­rabbit-punched him and took his gun away” (“The Mourner”). Superb formula. Pure protein, really. A book that starts with an asthmatic getting punched is not going to be 500 pages long. When he had made his point, or something like it, the writer typed the final period of his column and hit send.

James Parker is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and has written for Slate, The Boston Globe and Arthur magazine. He was a staff writer at The Boston Phoenix and in 2008 won a Deems Taylor Award for music criticism from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.

A version of this article appears in print on June 7, 2015, on page BR39 of the Sunday Book Review.

See online: Does the Size of a Book Suggest Significance?