I had a gift voucher to spend at the local book shop and was excited to buy a few from the 100 book challenge list. The Penguin and Vintage classics were selling for $14 each so I began searching the shelves for familiar titles.
At one stage I had War and Peace in one hand and Of Mice and Men in the other. The former is a whopping 580,000 words and the latter a mere 30,000. Being part of the classics range, they were both $14. It seemed a no-brainer: War and Peace was much more value for money. Just 2.4 cents per 1000 words.
I had my 6 month old daughter in the pram, and she had started to fidget. She wanted out. I put the books down to lift her out of the pram. Baby on hip, I then decided which of the two books I would add to my collection.
Looking down at my wide-eyed, teething, almost-crawling, squawking baby I accepted that this was not the right time of my life to be tackling half a million words. So I paid my 46 cents per 1000 words and left the store.
And despite having a baby and a 3 year old to take care of, I whizzed through the book in just one day. That’s a 100 book challenge record!
Many refer to this book as a novella. On the 100 book challenge list there are very few (non-children) stories of less than 50,000. And I wondered why. Why are short books so rarely listed as classics? And why did this one make the cut?
It’s because great novellas are surprisingly hard to write. It’s a challenge to get all the elements of a great story (strong characters, intricate plot, multi-layered themes) into so few words. Writing a shorter novel really isn’t the ‘easy way out’. When Tolstoy wrote War and Peace he had pages and pages and pages to get his view across to the reader. Each character could develop over time. The book would be read over weeks, months, or even years – plenty of time for the reader to fully immerse themselves in the story.
But a novella doesn’t have that advantage. 30,000 words might seem like a lot at first, but in reality: Every. Word. Must. Count.
And that’s where Steinbeck is a genius. In just over a hundred pages he crams in a brilliant action-packed story about two poor men trying to make it in a world that constantly seems to be against them. They find work on a ranch and as we get to know the other characters it’s like watching a train crash happen in slow motion – you know something terrible’s going to happen… and then it does. But it’s so much worse than you could have imagined.
And I cried.
I felt so attached to the two main characters. I wanted them to achieve all of their hopes and dreams. At the end of the book I literally had tears streaming down my face.
No other book so far in the challenge has had that effect on me.
And to think Steinbeck was able to do that in just 1 in 20 of Tolstoy’s words.
In July 2014 I set myself the challenge to finish 100 must-read books before I die. For my ongoing tally click here.Follow @jessieansons