Some thoughts on length, or I like big books and short books

I wrote a long dissertation. Too long, really, and certainly longer than most of my committee wanted to read. From cover to cover, 499 pages of shaggy and at times repetitive research, but in a format endorsed by my advisor who was convinced that something short and with a clearer narrative arc (i.e. something more readable) would be received as too insubstantial to be a dissertation.

During my oral defense, which took place on a Monday morning less than 24-hours after I returned from a conference in Canada, I articulated a vision for revising this document into a book. In particular, I wanted to fold almost all of the disparate case studies (19, accounting for about 2/3 of the length) into the core narrative. Some monographs are very well suited to illuminating a topic through narrow investigations on facets of a phenomenon. My case studies, I thought, were uneven and not suited toward offering a broad portrait of a phenomenon because I wasn’t writing about a phenomenon. Instead, I was using a regional study to talk about the relationship between imperial systems in the eastern Aegean, and I thought that these themes were best shown by tracing the evolution over time. The only case studies I wanted to leave would be two synoptic chapters (I was wrong, I only needed one) and three short appendices.

The changes I proposed that Monday morning are almost identical to what I put in my book proposal, in which I explained that I wanted to reduce the word count from a 150,000-word dissertation to a 100,000-word book (inclusive of notes). Prompted by a recent Twitter discourse on book length and the fact that I am in the home stretch of preparing my manuscript for submission, I wanted to take a moment to reflect both on how I did and offer a few thoughts on book length.

As to my own book, I ran over my word count by a little over 10% and watching the word count creep upward as I transform my citations to Chicago style has added a steady drip of anxiety to the process. I am actually close if you exclude the bibliography (some people don’t; my estimated count did), and I was on target before one of the readers for the press—correctly—pointed out that one of the chapters needed to be split into two. Each full chapter is between 9,000 and 11,000 words, so while adding this chapter substantially improved the book, it also accounts for most of the extra length.

The excess length bothered me, a lot.

Books cost money, big books cost more money, and first-time authors are unproven commodities. Book length is, of course, genre and field specific, which makes general truisms hard to come by. Romance novels fall into a rather narrow band between maybe 50,000 and 90,000, while the average fantasy book might be 100,000, but Patrick Rothfuss’ first book, The Name of the Wind, was 250,000 (the sequel was 400,000). I had read online that 100,000 words was already stretching it for a first-time academic non-fiction author, so running over by more than 10% sparked all sorts of thoughts. Would I have to cut an entire chapter? Would I have to spend hours ruthlessly trimming every trace of conversational tone from the manuscript in order to meet the word count?? Who needs a bibliography, anyway???

The solution, of course, was to email my editor, who gave me welcome guidance: send it all and let the readers decide. The readers liked the manuscript as-is…and suggested a few more minor additions.

I have an obvious bias here, but I am pleased with the outcome. The excess may be a little indulgent, but it also means that I don’t have to cut an entire chapter.

The academic discourse I have seen on Twitter—and elsewhere anecdotally—is for shorter books, at least in the non-fiction sphere. I am sympathetic to this movement. To echo what Bill Caraher has said on his blog, there is often something indulgent about long books. I increasingly find myself less attracted to long non-fiction, particularly when there is a biographical subject involved. Frequently, these books are repetitive and exult in the minutiae of a topic at the expense of making an argument. I understand why these are appealing, whether because one wants to live their “dad” life to the fullest with a blow-by-blow account of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia or because a tabloid-esque tell-all about someone’s life gives glimpses into the workings of power in Johnson’s White House or Horatio Nelson’s scandalous affair with Emma, Lady Hamilton. But that is also a matter of genre. For academic books, by contrast, the argument is the point, so much so that during coursework it is common for graduate students to talk about how to “break” a book and synthesize the scope of the argument without reading more than a few pages (this has never been one of my strengths). In truth, staying current in a field requires reading a lot of books and each person only has so much time. Short, elegant books with a clear argument are a blessing to the reader who may feel that time invested in a 170- or 200-page book is better spent than the time given to a 700-page one.

However, I am actually agnostic on book length.

Big books have their place, usually in the form of a grand synthesis covering a big topic. (Caraher suggests that the length serves to add gravitas.) I don’t often find myself sitting down to read these cover to cover, though my advisor once told me to read Pierre Briant’s From Cyrus to Alexander with a bottle of wine. More frequently, these are books that I mine for information. I read them in drips and drabs, looking for a specific discussion or for a chapter that I can assign to my students. In the case of Peter Green’s Alexander to Actium, I use it as a textbook that the students read alongside primary sources and other supplementary material. In other words, I like these books as resources.

That said, I am in broad agreement with Caraher on Graeber and Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything. It found a lot of their points provocative in terms of how to understand the early history of humanity, but this was not a book written in a way that sections could be easily extracted. The Dawn of Everything grew out of conversations between the two scholars, and it read like that to me. It felt conversational, but with a tendency to wander around drawing broad connections that illuminated whatever theme they wanted to talk about at a given moment. I came away with a lot to think about in terms of how I teach the early history of humanity and some things to follow up on, but I also suspect I should revisit at least some of the chapters in advance of teaching my world history survey again and the book’s indulgent length does not fill me with a whole lot of desire to do so.

What I look for is for the length of a book to fit its topic. Problems arise in long books because the extra space is as likely to cause bloat as it is to actually be necessary, which, in turn, diminishes how useful I find those books. My book is not nearly as The Dawn of Everything and the scholars who reviewed it for the press thought that the length was appropriate to the topic. I just hope that the general audience agrees when it finally comes out.

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