Three Tips For Reading Longer Novels

Well, since I’m still experimenting with reading slowly (which is why my next book review is taking quite a while to appear [Edit: Expect it in early June]), I’ve found that – freed from self-imposed deadlines – I actually ended up choosing a longer book to read (the 536-page sci-fi epic that is Joan D. Vinge’s “The Snow Queen”). This, of course, made me think about reading longer books.

So, here are a few tips for reading longer novels.

1) Know when length is justified: In general, longer novels are more common these days than they perhaps were in the past few decades. Length isn’t an inherently bad thing, although it is important to know when it is and isn’t justified. There is nothing worse than reading a novel that is quite literally hundreds of pages longer than it actually needs to be. Luckily, there are a few ways to tell if the longer novel you’re thinking about is actually worth investing all of that time in.

First of all, if a novel is a popular thriller novel (eg: by authors like Lee Child, Matthew Reilly, Dan Brown etc…) then the length is usually justified. This is mostly because any decent thriller novel of this type will be written in a fast-paced way which means that you’ll churn through it at about twice the speed of a “normal” novel. It’ll usually also have an intriguing premise, a mini-cliffhanger filled plot, lots of mysteries, shorter chapters etc.. which mean that you’ll also want to keep reading – so, the length will also feel like a good thing. Still, it’s usually worth reading a few pages first to see if it really grips you or not.

Secondly, if a novel turns out to be a later novel in a series, then it is usually a good idea to check out the shorter earlier books in the series first. Although some series are designed to be read in order, this also applies to series that aren’t. Generally speaking (and, yes, there are exceptions – like Joan D. Vinge’s “Snow Queen” series), many book series will gradually increase in length as they progress. So, taking a look at the shorter earlier novels will help you to see whether reading the longer novels will be something that you will enjoy.

Thirdly, if a novel is a sci-fi or fantasy novel, don’t automatically assume that it has to be long. Yes, many of the best novels in these genres are very long (and justified in this), but shorter examples of books in these genres were a lot more common as recently as the 1980s (yes, there are even short fantasy novels – like this one and this one). Still, given that these genres often involve creating detailed fantastical worlds, you should probably make a bit more allowance for length. Because of this, these novels can also sometimes take a while for the main part of the plot to really get going too. So, my advice here is to see whether you actually like the “world” of the story. If it interests you, keep going. If it doesn’t, read something else.

In general, my advice would be to either search for shorter novels by the author first (Like how I read Joan D. Vinge’s “World’s End” and “Tangled Up In Blue” before reading “The Snow Queen”) or to test-read the first couple of chapters or pages of a novel in order to see whether it is something that you want to spend a bit more time with.

2) Treat it like a boxset: It can be easy to take one look at a giant hulking tome and think “I’m never going to be able to finish this, so I might as well not even start reading it“. This is a perfectly normal reaction and, if you’re relatively new to reading novels or prefer to read quickly and/or binge-read, then it makes sense in this context.

However, the best way to think of longer novels is a bit like a DVD boxset of a TV series. Yes, modern boxsets are usually non-physical “streaming” things that are rented from large companies and designed around being “binge-watched”, but a traditional DVD boxset (with it’s large physical size and the requirement to change discs every 2-4 episodes) offers a better metaphor.

After all, when you pick up a DVD boxset, you don’t expect to watch all 10-24 episodes of it in one sitting. If it’s any good, you’ll also ration yourself to one disc per night. The size and slightly higher cost of it (even second-hand) compared to a DVD movie means that you’ll also want to get a bit more value out of it too.

In other words, when you’ve got a longer book, you need to think of it in this way. Yes, reading 500-800+ pages might sound incredibly daunting but, if you break it up into smaller daily instalments of 10-100 pages, then it becomes a lot more manageable and enjoyable. Plus, unlike an actual DVD boxset, there is no fixed episode length either πŸ™‚ So, on days where you have more time or more interest in reading, you can read more (and vice versa). As long as you read some of it regularly, you will end up finishing it eventually.

3) Take notes (the old-fashioned way): This probably isn’t practical in some situations, but one of the best ways to enjoy longer books is to take notes whilst reading. Since you’ll probably be spending days or weeks with the book, it’s likely that you might forget parts of the story. Yes, many well-written novels will include small recaps throughout the story that help to reduce the need for note-taking, but it’s often a good idea to take a few notes if you’re going to be spending a while with a novel.

My personal approach to this – which is probably overkill if you don’t plan to review what you’re reading – is to use a square of paper as a bookmark and to keep a notebook handy. If I see anything notable when I’m reading, then I’ll jot down the page number and a 1-5 word description on the square. Having tiny handwriting really helps with this, but you can probably use multiple squares (just make sure not to lose them) if you’ve got larger handwriting. After each reading session, I’ll usually also write a brief summary of what I’ve read in the notebook and then make additional notes about any themes etc.. that I’ve spotted.

You probably don’t need to make such extensive notes, but taking handwritten notes is usually a good idea with longer novels. And, unless it isn’t practical for you to do this, they really should be handwritten notes too. As several articles and studies (like this one) point out, taking notes by hand forces you to think about, condense and summarise things, which tends to help with memory.

On a more informal note, the sheer physicality and ritual of opening a notebook, clicking a pen etc.. and then writing by hand also goes really well with the low-tech ritual of reading a physical paperback book. Not to mention that, if you prefer reading books on a screen, then handwritten notes can also lend a bit of much-needed physicality and permanence to your reading sessions too.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful πŸ™‚

2 comments on “Three Tips For Reading Longer Novels

  1. Akash Nepali says:

    As always it’s useful!
    As lock-down days are increasing in Nepal.
    I guess i’ll go back reading HP series.
    As you told i won’t forget to note.

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