Heavy Reading

It didn’t all start with Tom Clancy, but he was right in the thick of the HBB movement. And I do mean thick. Oh, before him there had been other HardBack Bestsellers, but not so many of them were such Honkin’ Big Books.

They made Tolkien cut The Lord of the Ring into three volumes, but that was in the good old days. Perry Mason or Hercule Poirot would generally have the arsenic fancier put away by page 150. An average Harlequin Romance could get to its climactic clinch after 120 pages, and a trip to Saturn, complete with horrifying run-in with telepathic fiends and a wise extraterrestrial nutria, could be managed in 160, leaving several pages for Also By The Same Author and Don’t Miss These!

Oh, yes: Gone With the Wind had been there earlier, making fans sigh for an even longer book, and a sequel. And before that there was War and Peace, legendary for length (only partly accounted for by those long Russian names.) But the watchwords of pop paperbacks seemed to be short and sweet: if you have something more to say, write another book.

Was it Shogun, by James Clavell, weighing in at nearly 1200 pages that started us off in the mid-70s? Suddenly, by the 1980s, the bestsellers that doubled as paperweights were everywhere. Love’s Tender Fury convinced publishers that a steamy romance could be thicker than the Sunday paper and still sell. Tom Clancy was building an audience at the same time he built the length of his books. (We have actually had a Tom Clancy three-in-one volume come in, leading us to wonder whether it was worthwhile packing a box if one book would fill it.)

The movement gained momentum. James Michener brought us The Covenant, Texas and Alaska, novels of history which told about decades of events, very nearly in real time. David McCullough gave us Truman, to show nonfiction could weigh in as big as a novel, and Robert K. Massie brought out Dreadnought around the same time, on the history of, and roughly as long as, the battleship. Helen Hooven Santmyer bewildered publishers with And The Ladies of the Club, beloved by readers and critics even at 1344 pages. Louis L’Amour brought the quick, laconic western into epic length.

Several fantasy authors—Robert Jordan is one of the current favorites—gave us fantasy series epics, each volume of which is as long as The Lord of the Rings. Harry Potter showed us that younger readers could handle books the size of a sofa cushion, and the Twilight series followed suit (with somewhat larger print, I thought.) Writers now have the opposite problem the previous generation had. If they DO manage to wrap their story up in 140 pages, they complain, the agents just don’t want to know: that’s considered a novella now.

We have so far resisted the suggestions of kibitzers who suggest we should charge for books by the pound, or by the inch, rather than by the book. We feel that, after all, there’s no guarantee that the person who buys And The Ladies of the Club is getting three times the enjoyment of the customer with The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, nor that McCullough’s Truman is worth triple his 1776. We don’t want to discourage people from buying HBBs, after all.

Clears a lot of shelf space when they do.

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