I’ve always been intimated by long books. I’ve started Moby-Dick three times, and despite thoroughly enjoying the first 70 pages every time (it’s so gay! how could I not?), I’ve never finished it. I encountered the same problem on my two attempts with Anna Karenina: I was invested and interested in what I read, but could not commit. The longest book I’ve read in print is The Lord of the Rings, which I’m not counting because it’s conveniently broken into three volumes.
For years, I thought I just didn’t like long books. I consistently avoided them. Every time I picked one up, I’d become immediately anxious. I’d look at that dauntingly high page number and all I could see were the upcoming days, weeks — even months — that I’d have to devote to that book and only that book. I had no idea how to commit to a long book and actually enjoy it. Reading long books, I decided, was a kind of sacrifice: getting through them meant giving up precious reading time, time I could have spent reading five or eight or ten other wonderful books. So I just said “not for me” and moved on with my life.
Then I started listening to audiobooks. I’ve written before about how listening to audiobooks has made me a happier person. Audiobooks have enriched my life in more ways than I can count. Among their many gifts: my newfound love of long books.
One of the first audiobooks I ever listened to was The Goldfinch, which clocks in at a whopping 32 hours and 24 minutes. My aunt, who adores audiobooks, told me the audio was incredible. I was new to audiobooks and didn’t know where to start. “Great,” I said, and downloaded it. I don’t even think I registered how long it was. I just started listening, and I was immediately captivated. It remains one of my all-time favorite audiobooks to this day. In fact, I listened to it again this past December. Five years ago, you couldn’t have forced me to read a 771-page novel, let alone twice. Now the idea of reading (and rereading) such a long book is not only conceivable — it’s downright delightful.
I suspect it was partly being new to audiobooks that made it so easy for me to immediately start listening to long books. I knew that a 30 hour listen was just like picking up a 700 page book, but I didn’t have any of the associated negative assumptions about long listens. I knew, vaguely, how long it might take me to read 700 print pages, and that scared me. But I had no idea how long it would take me to listen to a 30 hour audiobook. In fact, between dog walks, cooking, meals, and chores, it didn’t seem unreasonable to spend three hours a day listening to a book. That meant finishing a 30 hour book in ten days. I could do that!
Audiobooks aren’t less of a commitment, but they are a different kind of commitment. I can spend two weeks or even a month listening to one audiobook, and still read other books at the same time. Sure, it’s possible to read more than one print book at a time, and I do. But it’s much harder for my brain to stay focused on a book if I only read a few pages of it each day. This doesn’t happen with audio. Maybe it’s just me, or maybe there’s some sciencey reason for it. All I know is that audiobooks sustain my attention in a way that allows me to read longer books. They opened the door.
The real gift, though, isn’t that I can read long books now. It’s that I love them. Long books, by their nature, are immersive. You spend a long time with one set of characters. You explore a subject in exquisite depth. You get to know an author’s writing style so well. There’s something that happens in long books that just cannot happen in short ones. There’s space to follow tangents, to meander, to linger on details. There’s a kind of intimacy in reading a long book that isn’t possible in a short one.
Don’t get me wrong: I love short books. I also love the spaciousness of a story that unfolds slowly. I love the twists and turns of a book that isn’t in a rush to get to its end. I love books that revel in describing ordinary moments (I adore The Goldfinch, remember?), and books that capture the intense emotional turmoil of characters over decades, and books with several complicated, intersecting plots. But I had no idea I loved any of that until I started listening to long audiobooks, because I was too scared to crack open a 700-page book.
When I sort my Goodreads shelf by number of pages, nearly all of the books over 600 pages are ones I’ve listened to. Soon after I fell in love with audiobooks, I read The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee (22 hours) and The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson (22 hours), two brilliant works of nonfiction I would never have been able to get through in print. I’ve meandered through Annie Proulx’s Barkskins (26 hours), Marlon James’s Black Leopard, Red Wolf (24 hours) and Honoree Fanonne Jeffers’s The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois (30 hours). All of these books have moved me and delighted me. They’ve made me cry and made me think about the world in new ways. I have loved the hundreds of hours I’ve spent with them.
I’m still not sure I’ll ever be able to read long books in print the way I can read them on audio. But if my newfound love of long books has taught me anything, it’s that nothing in the world of books is static. I am capable of changing the way I think about what and how I read. Yes, Moby-Dick and Anna Karenina are both on my audio TBR, as is Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann (45 hours!) and The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee (19 hours). These days, I often crave long books. I crave that sense of immersion, that deep plunge into one particular world, that delicious slowness. How remarkable, how thrilling, to find myself craving something I once feared.
Inspired to try a 20+ hour listen? Kendra made a great list of six long audiobooks to get you started.