Given some of my current reading on work, craftsmanship and the fashioning of identity, my attention was caught a few weeks ago by the peculiar treatment of books whose length numbered somewhere around two-hundred plus pages. Volumes of around 250 pages or even more—248, 264, 269, and one even as high up as 288–were being introduced by adjectives on the order of “small” and “little.” Was this some form of condescension? Certainly, I thought so when the usage was fitted out in a description of our blue Victorian domicile. Your little house, said our next-door neighbor, treating each consonant in little lovingly.
What’s up with “little”? And just what sort of thing might a “little” book be? Does size matter? Certainly only in relation to a volume’s wholeness, one might think. Too long, it seems, should be a no brainer, for how often have we whispered Macaulay’s dictum, “Must a man miss dinner for this?” as we look longingly ahead to page 833—The End.
Isn’t a critic is talking down, patting the dear old thing on the head—“and how is our small, precious book today?” Is it a form of affection? Relief some other poor schnook has to review Tim LaHaye or the novel that Glenn Beck has just extruded for our pleasure? (As a writer, I confess to being utterly page conscious, even since high school—is my paper, essay, elegy, epic poem, dissertation long enough?)
Let me, then, offer my totally scientific sample of six recent New York Times reviews—I wrote this wearing my “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on tv” white lab coat:
1. “Though relatively slender.” “The Ninth, Beethoven and the World in 1824” by Harvey Sachs, reviewed by Anthony Tommassini, June 17. 212 pages.
2. “This short new book…this lean book.” “The Korean War” by Bruce Cummings, reviewed by Dwight Garner, July 21. 288 pages.
3. “Mr. Kumar’s book isn’t especially long.” “A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb” by Amitava Kumar, reviewed by Dwight Garner, the Times impressive maid of all work, August 6. 217 pages.
4. “The book should have been longer…But in its cheerful, compact form it still offers….” So says Mark Oppenheimer of Ptolemy Tompkins’ “The Divine Life of Animals,” July 13. 243 pages.
5. “Mr. Swift’s small but ardent book…” “Bomber Country” by Daniel Swift, reviewed by Dwight Garner, Sept. 1. 269 pages.
6. “The tidy feast that is this book…” “The Honor Code, How Moral Revolutions Happen” by Kwame Anthony Appiah, yet another review by Dwight Garner, Sept. 15. 264 pages.
Of course, after my poor memoir of 105 pages, the literary version of a withered arm , I feel like a total punter. Still, it’s gotten good reviews. But it’s not long enough, of course, and no one’s called it “cheerful.” I felt as if I were missing out on something, and I have found what it is.
Luckily, I have the sociologist Richard Sennett to thank, especially if someone calls “Available Light” “dinky” or “mini.” In “The Craftsman” (Yale, 2008), which adroitly and artfully develops the simple grain of thought that “Making is Thinking,” and where midway in his chapter on “Material Consciousness,” Sennett’s definition of this broad term is rendered through the three stages of a process of “what makes an object interesting.” Stage three is “Anthropomorphosis,” with Sennett’s central example being the ancient craft of brick making, one where “their makers at a certain moment in history began to invest cooked lumps of clay with human qualities of an ethical sort—as in the ‘honesty’ of brick.”
Here, then, are the origins of these present-day humanizing modifiers–“lean,” “compact” and “tidy”—now being applied to books. To me, this is a heartening revelation expressive of our deep love of books, particularly as critics (of course, we’re unlikely to find such cozy terms in academic literary criticism). Whether we’ll apply these swaddling adjectives to books read on “Nook” or “Kindle” remains an open question, although I seriously doubt it. All honors, though, clearly are awarded to Mr. Garner. And, never fear, there’ll always be room for judgments on the order of Samuel Johnson’s verdict on “Paradise Lost”: “None ever wished it longer than it is.”