Of books… fat, thin, and lousy

A  few days ago, a friend who is otherwise quite a decent fellow, announced that he doesn’t read fiction. His remark reminded me of an incident 40 years ago. A girl friend who thought I was frittering away my life tried to force heavyweights like Prem Chand, Tagore, Bankimchand ­Chattopadhyay, Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Virginia Woolf, etc on me. I fled telling her that I hated all novels and that when I was forced to read one, as on a tedious train journey, it was to James Hadley Chase, Sidney Sheldon and Gulshan Nanda that I turned. Disgusted, she turned her attention to someone else. I was quietly able to return to the only form of private entertainment that was available then — reading.

Books were not always easily available everywhere and you had to nurse good books as you nursed Scotch. But those days of deprivation have given way to plentiful supplies.

That may sound simple now but it wasn’t in those days. Books were not always easily available everywhere and you had to nurse good books in the same way as you nursed Scotch. But those days of deprivation have given way now to plentiful supplies. Not only that: along with the scotch bottles which have become larger, story books have also become bigger. The 250-page book which you could read in three days has been replaced now by 800 page tomes that are difficult to hold. After much cogitation, I have concluded that this must be because of the bigger advances made now. The higher the advance, the more voluminous the book!

It’s the American way: jumbo size is what counts as value for money.


Fat books

Just look at the evidence. Children’s books were hardly ever more than 200 pages. Most were even less. In contrast, the great super-hit author,
J K Rowling, wrote 350 pages for the first Harry Potter book published in 1997. The subsequent books have been even fatter. This has made me wonder: has the attention span of kids increased in the age of Twitter, Facebook etc or do they merely skim the books for the story rather than the reading pleasure?

As for fiction for older people, Rowling has also started writing crime fiction under the pseudonym ­Robert Galbraith and her first book was almost 450 pages long. The same thing is true of Jeffery Archer also. Earlier, his books would be around 300 pages long. But now he writes 6-part series, in which each volume is more than 400 pages. And if you look around you will find that the same thing has happened with many other highly successful writers. You can’t carry these heavies around comfortably while travelling or read them in bed or, for that matter, finish them over a weekend. As entertainment, they get zero marks.

In contrast, most Indian writers who publish in India for little or no advance write far less, perhaps because of that reason. That not only makes it easier to read them and carry them around, if they are awful, they also fit more easily into normal dustbins which can’t accommodate their fat English counterparts. But the best part of Indian books is the translations, of which several hundreds are available now from all Indian languages. And such wonderful stories too. Even if some of them are boring, collectively they show why English is a must for cultural integration.

But, alas, it is not easy to find these books. The bookshops don’t put them on display and often don’t even stock them because the commission they get on them is not worth the cost of the shelf space. The good news, however, is that you can
get all of them online, for a pittance that too.

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