One of the very great pleasures of being on holiday, I find, is being able to reacquaint myself with the joy of reading. Or, to be precise, the joy of reading books. I really envy those who, as well as holding down a full-time job, still find the space in their lives, and also have the energy, to devote to books. Even some whose job it is – Booker Prizes judges, for instance – complain that reading all those books is something of a chore.
At the end of a working day, by the time I’ve logged on to Twitter, spent a diverting hour or so with my followers (I know, no wonder the God complex is so prevalent these days), and then trawled through the various corners of the internet to which I’ve been directed, I simply don’t have the concentration and mental facility to direct towards a work of literature.
No, I worked out some time ago that it’s only when I’m free of the temptations of the virtual world, liberated from the narcotic appeal of discovering, minute by minute, what Robbie Peston or Robert Savage (or is it vice versa?) think about things, that I’ll be able to immerse myself in the more vivid realm of someone else’s imagination.
So I spent the past couple of weeks in the company of Joseph O’Neill, whose Booker Prize long-listed novel The Dog is the first significant work of literature set in Dubai, and his portrait of the excesses and customs of the country is sharp and acerbic. And also of Ian McEwan, some of whose oeuvre had, shamefully, passed me by. It was a highly rewarding experience: I finally read Saturday, his coruscating novel about the day of the Iraq war protest in London in 2003, and, knowing what we know now, it is every bit as powerful and thought-provoking today as it was then.
The power of McEwan’s prose has stayed with me, and, bizarrely, his was almost the first voice I heard when I clocked on to work, so to speak. He was on Radio 4’s Today programme ostensibly to push his new novel, The Children Act, about how judges grapple with the complexities of family law, but he was quickly drawn into a very interesting discussion about the optimum length of a novel.
Most iconic book covers
Most iconic book covers
1/12 The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald
Francis Cugat designed the cover art for Fitzgerald's quintessential jazz age novel. He finished it before the book was complete and the author liked it so much he 'wrote it into' the novel.
2/12 The Godfather - Mario Puzo
This 1969 cover art was produced by S Neil Fujita and became so iconic that the gothic typeface and puppeteer's hand were used as imagery in the film too.
3/12 The Cat in the Hat - Dr Seuss
Theodor Seuss Geisel designed this cartoon for his own 1957 children's classic.
4/12 Fifty Shades of Grey - EL James
If this cover to EL James' first erotic novel isn't one of the most iconic sleeves of recent times, we don't know what is.
5/12 The Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger
Salinger was known for being fussy when it came to his book designs. He liked them simple with the only words being his name and the title, like this one by E Michael Mitchell.
6/12 'Porno' - Irvine Welsh
DJ Design came up with this crass cover for Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting sequel that few book-buyers could walk by without noticing.
7/12 Catch 22 - Joseph Heller
American jazz musician and designer Paul Bacon created this simple yet striking cover for Heller's novel. He is also the man behind the One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Slaughterhouse-Five sleeves.
8/12 One Day - David Nicholls
Craig Ward designed this bright romantic sleeve for David Nicholls' 2009 novel.
9/12 A Clockwork Orange - Anthony Burgess
David Pelham came up with this famous cover ten years after A Clockwork Orange was first published in 1962.
10/12 In Cold Blood - Truman Capote
S Neil Fujita designed this crime thriller's sleeve using a classic typeface, a strong black border and a simple drop of blood. The drop was brighter at first but Capote asked for it to be made darker as time had elapsed since the murders.
11/12 Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck
Illustrator Elmer Hader painted this by Steinbeck's request for his 1939 novel. He then created the cover art for East of Eden and The Winter of Our Discontent, too.
12/12 Invisible Man - Ralph Ellison
Edward McKnight Kauffer's powerful artwork represents the protagonist who is struggling to assert his identity in a world of hate.
This latest work, his 16th, which runs to 55,000 words or 224 pages, may strictly be too long to be considered a novella, but McEwan believes this genre – the short novel, if you like – has a lot going for it. “I do love this form,” he said. “The idea of sitting down to a book that you can read in one sitting, or in three hours, much as you might go to a movie, or the opera, or a long play.”
The discipline this instils in the writer, to establish characters and plot quicker, is, according to McEwan, a positive force. It’s true that so many modern novels, not to mention films and plays, are overblown and unnecessarily long. Woody Allen had the right idea about films – no longer than 90 minutes – and McEwan is on the right track about books. Make them shorter. And then we might even be able to read them in term time.