How to Increase Your Book Consumption: A Radical Proposal
Today no one reads, at least not for pleasure. This is because, while it used to take two years to cross the continent and now it takes only an afternoon, it still takes five hours to read a chapter of Melville, even on that train in France that goes so fast. When I mentioned to a friend that I had completed a volume of Churchill’s memoirs, she looked at me as if I had told her that, instead of driving my car to work, I carry it: ”Why didn’t you just watch ‘The Winds of War’?” she asked. ”Eight nights, 22 hours, a lot of skin.”
Quantity, then, as well as celerity and a lot of skin, is the current sign of quality. Speed, as well as scope, seduces. Americans are number-loving people, more impressed by the person who watches nine episodes of ”Buddenbrooks” than by someone who reads one paperback of it, even one with pictures from the show. What attracts people to a novel on television is the way they can ingest its complexities of plot and still do their sit-ups. Therefore, if we want more books to read, and people need numbers to feel satisfied, we will have to redefine the old-fashioned notions of what constitutes a book. If you can start at one end of ”Bleak House” and come out at the other end with your hat still on, it strikes me as terribly unfair that you only get credit for reading one book. If we want people to read the classics, we’ll have to do better than that.
My suggestion is this. Cast off the shackling conceit that covers define a book. Count pages. Every page over page 181 should count toward a new book. I pick page 181 because that is the length of ”The Story of Crazy Horse,” and if Enid LaMonte Meadowcroft can analyze a complicated man like Crazy and still have time to regale us with the stunts he performed using smooth stones in under 182 pages, any story can be told in under 182 pages.
If not, the reader should be compensated. ”Bleak House” for instance, at 888 pages, would be, under my rules of 181 pages per book, five books: 1-724 – four books; and 725-888, plus the flap and jacket and all the time your eyes keep moving but you’re not actually reading, you’re thinking about joining a health club and have to go back and reread – five books.
Also, any book translated from a foreign language should be credited on a two-for-one basis. For every one page read, count two. This is because in foreign books they use foreign names and you can read for 300 pages before discovering that Pasha, Pavel, Pashenka, Pavlovich, and Antipov are the same person. In the Russian book where this happened to me, Pavel made love to Antonina and he cried out, ”Tonia! My Nina!” and she cried out, ”Take me, Pasha!” and I thought that – all of a sudden – there were five people in the bed. Furthermore, I thought Pasha was a woman, and hardly one to ask into bed. (”Pasha’s arms were wide with muscle and vein and rippled with woolly hairs.”) Discovering that a character is of a sex other than previously supposed can necessitate some rereading – hence the two-for-one credit.
This rule also applies to Shakespeare, who has a Macbeth and a Macduff in the same play! Remembering the Russian book, I naturally thought they were the same person and was, thus, doubly shocked when Macduff murdered Macbeth. This rule can count, as well, toward any of the parts of the Twain books in dialect, if you don’t just skip them, as I do, in the hope that they’re character stuff. Clearly, what we should be moving toward are characters who are numbered, not named.
Such recommendations are designed to ease the burden of reading big books. Not to degrade my work, but these arguments are red herrings, and I will see that they are excised from the text in reprints. The real campaign should be the elimination of big books. Publishers can diminish their appeal by pricing anything over page 181 at $1 per page. A copy of ”Hawaii,” for instance, would cost $1,324.95 (paper, $1,304.95). Authors can help by writing in uncomfortable chairs like the kind they keep in the Design Section of the Museum of Modern Art, behind ropes. This will riddle their spines with pain and distract them from their search for the perfect adjective. In most cases, the perfect adjective is the one that remains off the page. Adjective users suspecting this advice would do well to remember that the ideal book is the same length as its Cliffs Notes. (Ideograms – symbols that stand for entire thoughts – may be the answer. They put to rest forever the misconception that a picture is worth a thousand words. Nothing is worth a thousand words – pictures are preferred.)
But however fervidly we seek the end of the big book, there are limits. We must condemn all book burnings – even, I’m afraid, the popular autumn tradition of raking loose books from around the yard into piles where children so love to jump. Book burnings are heavily criticized already, of course, but for the wrong reasons. The problem is not that books are being burned, but that whole books are being burned and not just the wordy, self-indulgent parts. If the incineration could be more selective, the burnings might not be denounced, especially by people who, for one reason or another, have to read ”. . . And Ladies of the Club” (1,176 pp.).
The final responsibility lies with the reader. If a friend recommends a book, ask what it’s about. ”Is it about . . . 180 pages? 181?” Then, examine the book. Is there a lot of blank space at the end of the chapter, with the next chapter not starting until the following page? If so, buy the book. ”The Color Purple” used this method and won the Pulitzer Prize. A shrewd inspection of the text will spare the reader many frustrations, especially those that occur when you’re flying down a page like a sled on a slope and you sense the end of the chapter coming and with it a chance to sneak some television before one of your children comes in and you need to act like you’re reading and then, all of a sudden . . . the print gets tiny and single-spaced like there’s a paper crisis somewhere and you have to read twice as much to finish the same page. The effect of this on the reader is unbelievably disheartening, equivalent to the agony a marathon runner would feel on finding, 10 feet from the finish line, 4 flights of stairs. If you own books like this, they should be thrown out; they have an untoward influence on children and instil in them a negotiable sense of honor. If you’re only looking at the book in a store, throw it across the shop. This will alert other readers.
Reading must be rewarded like everything else. Few men marched to war until medals were offered and now there are wars all over the place and women have sued to join the forces. We must give credit to the massive amount of fringe reading that goes untabulated every day. Consider the reading a person must do in a movie: the spinning headlines, the complicated but friendly computer directions about how to play thermonuclear war, all that sad stuff about the South that kept rolling across the landscape shots in ”Gone With the Wind.” What about the directions on child-protector caps, and the way you read a menu and then the waiter comes and you have to pick it up and read it again to find out what you’d decided on? Things like that add up. If we take the proper steps, we can have a society where a person, with a little planning, reads 30 books in a weekend.
Credit is available for this article.
This article was first published in The New York Times on February 24, 1985, and it appears with permission from the author.
Douglas McGrath, a freelance writer, is originally from Midland, Tex. In the old days, people asked more of themselves. They felt an obligation to discover the New World, sometimes clearing big clumps of trees so that later the East River Drive could be built. Even with that kind of responsibility, people found time to read. Books meant something in those days.
Jarrett Robertson was born in Hell’s Kitchen, and searches his urban environment to find the true heartbeat of the city. As he finds the hidden voices within a metropolis, his goal is to make photographs that uncover truths about our society. His ability to capture the grittiness of any given moment is a necessary addition in telling his truthful stories.