“Atlas Shrugged” and other exercises in wretched excess.

At over 1300 pages this is NOT "light reading."

At over 1300 pages this is NOT "light reading."

My son wants to read Atlas Shrugged for an essay contest sponsored by The Ayn Rand Institute. The problem for him is going to be the essay is due by September 17 and at over 1300 pages Atlas Shrugged is by no means “light reading.”

I fear my son has chosen a book waaay over his head. 

I haven’t read the book since I was in college and even then it was something I approached as a chore to get through instead of a pleasure to read. There are great books and there are long books and Atlas Shrugged is a very long book that has become great over the passage of time. I consider it to be in that pantheon of works which are admired more than they are read. 

I feel the same way about all the Toni Morrison novels my wife owns.   There was an amusing essay in The Guardian that observed, “Life’s too short for thousand page novels” and I couldn’t agree more.   Carrying around a book the size of the Yellow Pages will build up your arms, but writing a long book doesn’t mean it’s a  well-written book.

mumble...mumble...wheres my donuts...mumble...

"mumble...mumble...where's my donuts?...mumble..."

There are exceptions of course.  When I was into reading about World War II, one of my favorite books was The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer, all 1,245 pages of it.  But I first read the book it when I was a teenager.  I’m 53 years old now.  I don’t have time to plow through a 1000 pages.   I doubt I’d even want to.

I used to be a huge Steven King fan.  Whenever he’d crank one out (and he cranks out a lot), it wouldn’t be long before it was on my bookshelf.  But Big Steve made the mistake of confusing long with good.  The Stand (823 pages) was one of my favorites.  But  It (1138 pages) wore me down.  I endured the book as much as I read and skipped a lot of pages trying to get to something readable.

When he was starting out King wrote lean and sparse (Carrie, 199) and once he broke through he began to stretch a bit (The Shining, 447 pages, Salem’s Lot, 439 pages) without losing his way.   Too bad went he became Stephen King the brand name anything he crapped out was sure to sell and that includes some of his absolute worst shit such as Insomnia (704 pages) and Needful Things (792 pages). 

When I was a Stephen King fanboy, I went through his books like they were Spider-Man comic books. I dug the hell out of The Stand in 1978 when it was 823 pages, but not as much when King came out when the complete and uncut version in 1990 that bulks up to 1153 pages.

Making a long book even longer doesn’t mean it’s better. Everything isn’t improved just because there’s more of it. Apocalypse Now is one of my favorite flicks of all time, but when Francis Coppola came out with Apocalypse Now Redux with an additional 49 minutes it just made a long movie longer and not a marked improvement over the admittingly flawed original. Marlon Brando still was a fat, mumbling, lumbering slob.

Yes, some books are as long as they need to be as for a rare few, that’s the only way they would work. Writing tight works in journalism, but in writing novels, less is not always more.

Still, my experience is inevitably the longer a book is the more likely it is to drag and meander at some point. When I read King’s longest book, IT, I found myself just flipping pages at times and when I finished, I knew I’d never read IT again.

"You try playing for six hours and you'll need a nap too."

"You try playing for six hours and you'll need a nap too."

But at 822 pages, Moby Dick remains The Book That Almost Made Me Hate Reading. I wouldn’t make my worst enemy read it. It’s duller than daytime television and kills more brain cells.   

 The only thing I can recall even close to that level of tedium are The Sun Bear Concerts by Keith Jarrett.  That’s TEN records of solo piano improvisation (now condensed down to six CD) and at 397 minutes in length it’s a great way to kill a slow day…very slowly.

Now I’ve never heard The Sun Bear Concerts, so I can’t comment on whether it’s any good.  For Jarrett fans I’m sure it’s a fun way to spend over six hours.   For everyone else listening to that much solo piano might get a wee bit boring around about the third or fourth hour. 

Reading a long book is a labor of love.  You have to invest a lot of time to go that deep into a novel and as my eyes grow weaker, the lenses stronger and my free time more scant,  I’d rather go through a few books that top out at 500 pages than one that goes over a thousand.  

I hope my son enjoys Atlas Shrugged, but I’d be surprised as hell if he does.  Ayn Rand’s writing is drier than toast.