It’s said that you can’t judge books by their covers, and you certainly can’t judge them by the four-color, over-the-top advertisements in various Sunday papers. Also, I’ve stopped paying attention to reviews by literary critics who could probably find levels of pseudo-psychology and Freudian innuendo in “See Dick Run and Jump.” So what’s left?
I hate to admit that I sometimes judge by the number of pages in a book, not exactly an intellectual approach. Truthfully, though, low-pitched grumbling can be heard when Southold Book Club members pick up next month’s title if it’s anywhere close to two inches thick. This immediately leads to frantic flips to the back pages and much gasping — “Hark! It’s over 600 pages long!” (Should the book be nonfiction, sighs of relief are heard with the discovery of 128 pages of acknowledgements, notes, bibliography and index. Phew, we’re back to the mystical, magical, manageable 496 pages.)
Too much concern about lengthy page counts can be a trap, though. I’m talking fiction here and can’t imagine not having read “Gone with the Wind” (1,038 pages), “Pillars of the Earth” (974) or “East of Eden” (600), three terrific books, page-turners right to the end. Careful, though, of loving Broadway’s “Les Mis” so much that you decide to read “Les Misérables,” which checks in at a robust 672 jam-packed pages.
More recently there’s Edward Rutherfurd’s “New York” (862) and Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch” (784). (I’m in constant prayer that the Book Club doesn’t choose this. Everyone I’ve spoken to who’s read it wondered if Tartt’s copy editor had, mid-project, run off and joined the circus. ) And there, behind the Iron Curtain, lurking in the wings, looms “War and Peace,” an astounding 1,232 pages. Never mind not buying green bananas, I’m way too old to start that one.
Hey, maybe short books are the answer, the fewer pages the better. There’s Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s “The Little Prince” (114), Paul Gallico’s “The Snow Goose” (66!) and the wrenching “The Old Man and the Sea” (98). Even the much-heralded “The Great Gatsby” is an approachable 180 pages.
But again, be cautious or you could find yourself mired down in the mere 80 pages of “The Heart of Darkness,” Conrad’s dive into murky waters, or Camus’ “The Stranger,” 124 pages of “I’m sorry, what was that again?” More recently Paulo Coelho’s “The Alchemist,” 178 pages of faux-spiritual nonsense, has spent some 330 weeks on best-seller lists, which emphatically trumps my cynical opinion.
Unrelated trivia: Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway” is a petite 214 pages, Tom Wolfe’s “Bonfire of the Vanities” is a lusty 640 and Thomas Wolfe’s “You Can’t Go Home Again” is a mind-numbing 744. Nothing succeeds like excess.
So, what’s the answer? Besides the book club, I listen to recommendations from people who aren’t terribly different from me, people whose tastes and opinions I can rely on. My wife. A brother-in-law. A couple we know. A nephew. A sister-in-law. (Listen, I have 13 nephews and six sisters-in-law. You don’t really think I’m going to name names, do you?). Making choices, taking chances, trying changes are all part of the lifelong enjoyment of reading.
Mr. Case, of Southold, is retired from Oxford University Press. He can be reached at [email protected].