Right now, I am in the midst of two long and highly acclaimed long books. I’ve been reading a print edition of Ron Chernow’s Washington, and I’ve been listening to an audio version of Annette Gordon-Reed’s The Hemingses of Monticello. Chernow’s tome has already won the American History award, and likely will pick a few more over the next several months. Gordon-Reed’s book won, among other prizes, the Pulitzer. And they sold lots and lots of books.
I wish both were a good bit shorter.
I am only somewhat frustrated with the Chernow book. Washington’s life, after all, was rich with significance, and merits considerable attention. And I’m a fan of Chernow’s. His Alexander Hamilton was my favorite biography, at least until I investigated the Burr-Hamilton duel myself and discovered that Chernow had slanted the facts a bit. Maybe more than a bit.
But there are multiple digressions in the book that are not necessary and details that are simply numbing, not informative. A good editor could chop 100 pages out of the book (it weighs in at 800+) and no one would notice. Chernow, though, is an accomplished story-teller, and he has kept me gnawing away at his text, periodically calculating how many pages are left.
The Gordon-Reed book is more problematic. She chose to write about a slave family; the written historical record for slave families is always sparse, even for a relatively privileged slave family like the Hemingses. I am still trying to get through the book because I am learning interesting things from it every now and then, and I value that. But I would guess this one is twice as long as it needs to be.
There have been passages when I was inches from starting to pound the CD player in my car. When she notes that no records survive from John Wales, Thomas Jefferson’s father-in-law, she explains in extraordinary detail all the ways in which his papers might have been destroyed. I actually don’t care. Just tell me they’re gone.
Or the passage about the relationship between Wales and the mother of Sally Hemings, who became Jefferson’s slave/consort in his later years. Gordon-Reed knows precious little about the connection between Wales and Sally’s mother except that it produced six children over a given period of time. So she fixes on a reference to her as Wales’ “concubine” in a remembrance written 67 years later by the woman’s grandson. She regales us with learned explication of the meanings of “concumbine” over the generations. She takes the word into the baement and metaphorically beats it with a rubber hose. You can hear it shrieking with pain in the background (a remarkable effect, available only in the audio book format). But the discussion sheds no light on anything. It’s just learning and scholarship for its own sake, not because it helps explain the story, or . . . anything.
Another example is the deathbed scene of Jefferson’s wife, who was the half-sister of Sally Hemings. Gordon-Reed is understandably frustrated that the surviving records — all by white people — make almost no mention of the role of the Hemings women in caring for the dying woman. It’s a fair point to make. But she makes it at such length, with such patronizing and prolix references to the basic conditions of slavery that are understood by any reader who has gotten this far in her book, that I started hitting the “advance” button on the CD player.
I am reciting these two hugely successful books as my examples, but there are at least a half-dozen more books I have read in the last year that were equally or more bloated. It’s easier to pick on the ones that everyone knows about and has read.
So this strikes me as an actual conundrum. We are supposed to have shrinking attention spans in the Internet era. The headlines despair that The Book is DYING! Yet the most successful books in my area of publishing are really long, Actually, I think, too long. So what’s going on?
I have to acknowledge that there plainly are readers out there who like long books, who are less impatient than I am. Bless them. Indeed, there are award-presenters who certainly like long books.
I also think that there are editors out there who have, like everyone else in publishing, lost a bit of their mojo. Who’s going to say to Chernow, “Ron, baby, great stuff here, but you’ve got to lose the self-indulgent asides?” Or tell a distinguished African-American scholar that she needs to apply some focus to her extended imagining of facts that might have been true about the Hemings family?
Writing and publishing a book is an extraordinary act of arrogance. The world is drowning in books. I probably do not have time left in my life to read all of the books that were published last month. The world’s bookshelves are groaning from the load (the kindles are . . . , oh, well, don’t have the metaphor for that). And I and Ron Chernow and Annette Gordon-Reed have the brass to say to the world, “Hey — take a few hours and listen to me. That’s right. Listen to ME!”
If we can actually secure someone’s agreement to give us those hours, we owe them (i) some entertainment, (ii) some enlightenment, and (iii) a commitment not to take up more of their time than the story warrants. I fear, much of the time, that my own books may not meet my own standards. If they don’t, sad to say, they have plenty of company.