Monday, November 2, 2009

On Skinny Spines and Reluctant Readers

I’m a bit of an impatient reader, if you want to know the truth. When I browse my bookstore, I look at the spine. And if it’s really fat, I sigh. Do I want to commit to this book? It had better be really recommended someplace.

Yes, I’m one of those readers who skips past lengthy narrative passages until I reach a line of dialogue. Because that’s where stuff is actually happening. We all know this.

It’s not that I don’t have respect for the language, the beautiful descriptive passage, the profound introspection of characters. I’m sure the author worked really hard on it. And some authors, like Sarah Dessen for one, write some really beautiful books this way.

But if I’m honest, I look for the skinny spines. Because to tell a story with fewer words, now that takes some writerly muscle. Walter Dean Myers, Gary Paulsen, Rita Williams-Garcia—I could go on a while. These authors could take a few dozen pages to tell you all about a character’s inner life. But instead, they show you with a line of dialogue, the way they say something. Take Stephen King: he writes some real tombs, ones that are a bit much for me, but ones that readers love. But if you want to read his best work, pick up one of his short story collections. Now that’s some good writing.

I used to apologize sheepishly for my impatience. I would sigh when my work was rejected outright, without a second glance, because it was too short to make the cut. It must be my flaw, I thought. Everyone else seems to need at least 300 pages to feel a story.

But the more I felt that way, the more books I found with skinny spines. Good books. Short story collections that still have me thinking about the characters for days, like Levithan’s How They Met. And I found there’s a name for readers like me: reluctant readers. We’re impatient. Need skinny spines, so we don’t get overwhelmed some say. And we’re mostly boys, apparently.

So I’m a reluctant reader, I guess. And you know what? It’s a really great place to be. Because some of the best writing is behind those skinny spines—you just have to pay attention. I feel sorry for those of you who dismiss books that don’t make a certain page or word count, because you’re missing out on the greatest show-don’t-tell stuff that’s out there. Brevity is a virtue much underrated.

Here’s a thought: maybe reluctant readers are really just the sharpest ones.


  1. Hmm. Interesting.

    It's funny, I've sometimes passed on skinnier books because it doesn't feel like I'm getting the bang for the buck. Result of being one of those middle-of-the-brain people? Or an accountant? But I have read some really good shorter books. I've also read some that needed to be longer. On the opposite side, there are beautifully written long books that couldn't spare a single word, but also those that suffer from severe word bloat.

    I have been looking for some shorter work, because it's nice to have one or two around to turn to after tackling something like an 800-page Umberto Eco novel.

    You always ask such good questions.

  2. I don't mind if it's dialog or narrative, but I don't want it long. No matter how good, it doesn't have to be more than 280 and under is better yet.

  3. You know, there's bad writing behind both skinny and fat spines (and those in the middle). I do think that many bloated novels, however great the writing, would benefit by tighter storytelling. Kill those darlings... It forces writers to remember the point they were making.


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