Ian McEwan’s right. If books were shorter, we could read them in one go

There's always pleasure to be found in singular, uninterrupted experiences

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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.

 

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.

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