I’m half way through reading David Brook’s excellent book The Road to Character. I was telling a friend about it yesterday and she commented “oh, it must be good if you’re planning to finish it.”
Apparently my flakiness in not being able to finish non-fiction books is becoming well known. But it made me wonder: why is it that I gobble fiction books (most recently, Christa Parrish’s Still Life—on sale on kindle til Feb 1st!—and Lianne’s Moriarty’s What Alice Forgot), but very seldom finish non-fiction works?
Is it because I lack commitment? Or intellectual rigor? That is definitely a possibility as I become lazier with age… but I think there’s more to it than that. My theory is this: I’m becoming more selective with age, and many non-fiction books are just too long. Or at least, they’re longer than they need to be to say what they have to say. There are some books that really should have just been essays—GREAT essays!—but then someone thought “oh, you should turn that into a book…” And I find, as a reader, that sometimes I’m half way through a non-fiction book and start to feel antsy. I think “hm. I think I know where they’re going with this.” Then I read a chapter more, just to see if anything new comes up, but often it’s just variations on a theme. And at that point, it gets tossed into the teetering tower of Great Books I Didn’t Finish Reading next to my bed.
I then promptly pick up a new fiction book, which keeps me going to the end because I want to know what happens next. For example, The Count of Monte Cristo, which weighs in at over 1000 pages in length, was a page turner par excellence. It was long, but EVERY PAGE mattered (after the first 130 pages, that is, which were so heartbreaking I wanted to die. But pages 130-1130 turned me into a social recluse. Just ask my family about the Christmas of 2014 when I curled into a futon for three days.)
The rare non-fiction book that I read from beginning to end usually have two properties:
- It continues to introduce new ideas throughout the book, while maintaining its overall thematic consistency, and
- It contains some good storytelling throughout. True fact: I like books about interesting people. Non-fiction books which are peppered with a human element (especially if they’re well told stories), will keep me reading.
Brooks’ The Road to Character meets these criteria. And so did Jen Hatmaker’s For the Love (which was a book I really, really didn’t want to read). So does Stephanie Rische’s I was blind (dating), but now I see – which read like a novel even though it was memoir mixed with devotional insight, and best of all was laugh out loud funny at times.
I have a crazy smart friend who comes up with great theories about life. He has a theory about why television series are better than movies: because a movie is too short to develop a satisfying narrative arc. In other words: it is a lot to expect two hours of cinema to develop deep characters (and have us identify with them) as well as set up a credible story in which we have context, some kind of crisis, and a satisfying resolution. Very few movies do this well. But a mini-series on TV has some time to develop its characters as well as create multiple small mini-crises to keep us watching from week to week. Think of The Office (the weekly installment of Dwight). Or Parenthood (yay Bravermans!) Or Sherlock (need I say more, BC?) But when movies try to drag the story (Hunger Games 3 and LOTR movies, I’m looking at you), I find it hard to keep paying attention. It’s not moving fast enough.
I think he’s on to something, whether it comes to stories told in literature or on the screen. The medium must be the right length for the message.
What do you think? What’s the sweet spot for you when it comes to the length of books and movies? Or am I the only one who quits books or movies because they’re just taking too much time already?