"Nothing like a 900-page book to make me stand up for what I believe in," writes Malcolm Jones, a Newsweek book reviewer. Apparently what he believes is that books are a nuisance, unless they can be consumed quickly, without undue claims on one's time and without usurping the place one has already set aside for the after-dinner cocktail.
My time is precious. Your time is, too. Who has enough time in the day to do all that we want? When I go home after work, it’s triage every night. I can listen to music. Or I can play music. Or I can answer letters or write. Or I can read a book. Or watch TV. Or watch a DVD on TV. Or go out to a concert or a movie. And those would be the nights that I don’t have to clean up the kitchen, do the laundry or help with homework.
It's unclear from Jones's brief essay whether he had taken on Vikram Chandra's new novel Sacred Games (the 900-page novel in question) as a review assignment and decided to forgo it, or whether it was simply one of those books he tried to wedge into his otherwise busy evenings "after work." If the former, it's hard to see why he couldn't have forced himself through the book (although he claims to have found Sacred Games a good book, just not a great one) during the time he was actually at work. Is this not what full-time book reviewers for national magazines do during the day--read the books they then review? Or are they otherwise too busy taking lunches and doing meetings? Perhaps I'm not sufficiently informed about what the job description for a journalist-reviewer like Malcolm Jones really looks like.
Even if this particular novel was one Jones took home with him to read in the easy chair, it might be assumed that a book reviewer undertakes that job in the first place because he/she has some overriding interest in books that would make finding a slot for them in the evening's schedule not such a difficult decision, despite those other "entertainment options." But as Amardeep Singh puts it, Jones "comes dangerously close to admitting he'd rather be watching TV." Surely there are many people who do find that other responsibilities and time constraints deprive them of the opportunity to read, an opportunity they might otherwise take, but those who merely find reading a possible choice among others for spending "downtime" probably don't take books very seriously in the first place, and it's discouraging that a professional book reviewer would be giving them cover.
Also according to Jones, "there are few things more aggravating than getting well into a book and discovering that you don’t like it after all. You’ve wasted your time." Well, I guess it depends on what you mean by "well into." Since Jones seems to prefer shorter novels, "well into" need only be, say, 25 pages. I put books aside at this point all the time, and I can't say I find it aggravating. If anything, I'm glad I can dispense with this book (and I may return to it later) and go on to one of the many (many) other books that seem worth reading, among which I'm going to discover that one gem that makes the whole process worthwhile. Jones says he abandoned Sacred Games after 100 pages, even though he thought those 100 pages well done. This suggests not a problem with the quality of the reading experience, but with the reader's attention span. As Amardeep also says, "a long novel is a qualitatively different kind of experience than watching a film, and thinking of them as interchangeable experiences doesn't speak well of Jones."
It's certainly possible that I, too, would stop reading Sacred Games after 100 pages, or even less. You shouldn't grind your way through a book "you don't like after all." But I think I can honestly say I would be discarding it not because I couldn't face its 800 additional pages but because it wasn't working for me whatever its length. I actually enjoy long novels, and one of the pleasures of such works is the pleasure of witnessing the author artistically redeem the large literary canvas. I enjoy short novels too, but the artistry involved is of a different order, an order of intensity and concision rather than breadth. In either case, they shouldn't be rejected simply because there's the Six Feet Under box set to watch.