Why Big Books Still Matter

“Today is the day of the sound bite,” former Harper Collins CEO Jane Friedman told us last spring, plugging her post-advance imprint HarperStudio and singing the praises of short, cheaply acquired books. Big books — the kinds her underlings still pay millions for — were slow-moving dinosaurs in a world of shorter, faster blog and Kindle-me quickies. But the novel of the year may very well be a brontosaurus: Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, a difficult, 893-page translated masterpiece (see Sam Anderson’s review). In other words, big might still be big.

If 2666 actually sells (and publisher FSG hopes to God it does), it may answer some serious questions about the future of The Big Book. Why do lots of publishers continue to drop big cash on near-thousand-page books in the era of blog posts, Web porn, and text-message lit? Are America’s ADD-addled consumers even capable of immersing themselves in these narratives anymore?

We say yes, and not just because, attention-challenged as we are, we’ve always used such doorstops (maturing from Stephen King’s The Stand — unabridged — to Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day) to test our mettle, like weekend joggers taking on a marathon. We doubt we’re alone. Back when everyone was writing endless sagas of war and social upheaval for a market with few entertainment alternatives, reading them just wasn’t such a big deal. Nowadays an Infinite Jest (famously left long so that it could be marketed as an Important Book) is not just a novel, it’s an event. And reading it is a rare accomplishment — one worth, say, $30 in hardcover.

Size doesn’t just work in books. Movies keep getting longer, and few people complain. Confronted with a dark, harrowing 152-minute Batman sequel, audiences made The Dark Knight the second-highest grossing film in American history (following the three-hour-long Titanic). The best TV series of the past decade — and those with the most devoted fans — have unfolded not as stand-alone snippets of Seinfeldian brain candy, but as twisting, opaque, multi-season narratives. These tricky epics feel special; they’re hard to digest, like whole grains and winter greens. They’re aspirational.

What Bolaño’s three-volume paperback release resembles most, nestled in its special-edition cardboard container, is a DVD box set. 2666 hits stores the same day as the complete set of The Sopranos, which weighs ten pounds and consists of 86 hour-long episodes, three-plus hours of bonus footage, and two full soundtracks on three CDs. Nobody believes one disc would sell better. (Maybe that’s why David Chase won’t make that oft-rumored Sopranos movie.)

It bears remembering that a book, no matter how long and complicated, doesn’t require you to read it all in one go, nor does it force you to watch commercials. In this respect, other media are becoming more booklike, not the other way around. TiVo, Netflix, and iTunes enable you to consume what you want, when you want it, in or out of sequence. Take a break if you like — but only if you like. Watch a whole season of Lost in a weekend — or every morning on the subway. A longer, more intense experience — whether it’s a ten-show Mad Men block or a 100-song iPod playlist — at least gives you the option to stretch. And nothing does it better than a big, multifaceted novel. Take a year to read it, or one stormy weekend (well, several — we’re hoping for a long, cold winter).

Or just adapt your existing habits and read it every Sunday evening for an hour: Mad Men’s over and Entourage sucks, anyway.

Why Big Books Still Matter