Just by sheer coincidence my first and my last post this month have to do with time and how we employ it in consuming fictions. I wrote on 1st September about whether investing so many hours on watching one of those US TV series so popular today is worth it. I argued that this is not the case (for me), and came to the conclusion that I won’t invest more than 20 hours in any given narration.

Then, two colleagues called my attention to a couple of related questions. On the one hand, Laura told me about a piece in ShortList.com about “How Long it Takes to Read the Most Popular Books” (http://shortlist.com/entertainment/books/how-long-it-takes-to-read-the-worlds-most-popular-books). On the other, David emailed us to comment on Ian McEwan’s recent boutade, arguing that most novels are too long. I don’t have an exact link for this, but it seems McEwan offered this critique on Radio Four’s Today programme.

“My fingers are always twitching for a blue pencil,” he claimed, when he reads books above the 800-page mark (think Donna Tart’s The Goldfinch). McEwan added that “The Americans especially love a really huge novel, they still pursue the notion of a great American novel and it has to be a real brick of an object. Very few really long novels earn their length.” (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2740179/900-pages-long-novel-says-Ian-McEwan-Booker-prize-winning-author-believes-long-books-need-editing.html) McEwan’s most recent volume (224 pages) is a novella, he says, The Children Act, just 55,000 words long. McEwan’s statement has not really impressed readers: a poll run by The Guardian showed that 52% disagreed with him. One can always make the obvious claim that this depends on the novel in question, although I would agree that not all novels “earn their length.” Also, with McEwan’s hint that novelists need more than ever the good offices of competent editors.

If we take a look at the ShortList.com piece, we’ll see that McEwan’s novella is, rather, a novel, similar in length to Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate (53,234 words, the paperback is 256 pages long). I do not understand the calculations in that page as the logical thing to do would be to note the hours and minutes it takes to read a text, instead of which they use a decimal notation (2.96 hours for Esquivel’s book). If my mathematics work correctly, this is 2 hours and 57 minutes at a rate of 300 words per minute. 3 hours and 3 minutes for McEwan’s book (which he wants us to read in one sitting). I have checked and this is more or less how fast I (a very experienced reader) read, but it might not be feasible at all for, say, one of our first year students painfully reading in a second language. Or many native speakers of English, depending on their education.

Then, I doubt anyone can manage Sophocles’ Antigone in 0’61 hours (that’s 36 minutes, isn’t it?), reading at the same pace one would read a Tom Clancy thriller. Length is not all that matters, as my students, currently reading Oliver Twist must now be thinking. Just to comment on a few titles: the whole Harry Potter saga amounts to 60 hours (the time I spent watching The Wire!). War and Peace, the longest volume I have ever read at 1,800 pages requires 32.63 hours (with volumes that long, I tend to count days, not hours –it took me a long August to read Tolstoy’s masterpiece, same with Tolkien’s trilogy of The Lord of the Rings). And I don’t think that readers willing to read George Martin’s massive A Song of Ice and Fire care about the hours, days, months, or even years this will take.

I do not know whether this is a consequence of that Kindle function which enables you to see how long you need to read a volume (the machine establishes your speed once you read a few pages). Yet, something tells me that in this overcrowded fiction panorama of today time is beginning to matter (will writers also count the hours invested in particular novels?).

This came the same week my 13-year-old nephew and I had this crazy conversation about the new game Destiny, at 550 million dollars the costliest piece of fiction ever. We got into quite a tangle trying to work out how many hours (minimum) a player would expect from the game and how this related to its high price (55 to 75 euros depending on the retailer, though he had seen a special edition at 150 euros). Perhaps Mr. McEwan is missing the point that readers are happy to read thick volumes because (like gamers) they get value for money, that is, many reading hours. With his slim novellas one is done on any rainy afternoon (like today’s); that might be simply too expensive for someone used to paying what his little book costs for a thick paperback.

I puzzle, anyway, every time I take my Kindle to see that duration has replaced length for me as a reader. The first thing we do, Virginia Woolf said, when we pick up a new volume is to see how many pages it has. Not any more, it seems, or not always.

(I’m told games do not have a specific duration, as this depends on how we play them. I read though that the first player to reach level 30 in Destiny has consumed 107 hours, which seems to be an absolute record. Also, that other gamers are complaining that the game runs out too fast. So much to learn…)

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