Once upon a time, authors wrote big books about big topics, and the publication of big books were big events. The competition was Freudian: whoever had the longest one could brag the most. Today, however, the closing of the American mind (the title of a 400-page book a generation ago) has given way to the collapse of the American attention span (thank texting, Facebook and Twitter) and neither authors nor readers seek size from their books.
In the pre-iPhone era, when people used downtime to engage in independent thought instead of engaging in smartphone "thumbsterbation," books took their sweet time to get to the point. If somebody wrote a biography of a famous person, you'd have to get through 80 pages of finding out what their grandfather ate for breakfast in the old country before the ostensible subject of the book was even mentioned. Thorough? Yes. Overkill? Absolutely. But that's how things went back then, because ADD hadn't become standard equipment and there were fewer forms of competition for the free time of readers.
For example, consider Presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Dwight David Eisenhower, each subjects of numerous lengthy biographies. On Amazon you can find the following books about each of these great men. First, Ike:
Eisenhower, by Geoffrey Perret, 688 pages.
Eisenhower: Soldier and President, by Stephen E. Ambrose, 635 pages.
IKE: An American Hero, by Michael Korda. 800 pages.
Eisenhower, A Soldier's Life, by Carlo d'Este. 880 pages.
Franklin Roosevelt takes about as much time to explain, as these volumes indicate:
Traitor to His Class, by H.W. Brands. 888 pages.
FDR, by Jean Edward Smith, 880 pages.
And for those with slightly less time on their hands, No Ordinary Time, by Doris Kearns Goodwin, 768 pages.
Or if you're really busy, there's always The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope, by Jonathan Alter, coming in at a skimpy 432 pages. Still, a big book by any reckoning.
In a sign of the publishing apocalypse, you can find a joint biography of FDR and Ike, Architects of Power, published in 2010, a measly 112 pages. That's 112 pages covering both men, whose hernia-inducing individual biographies are typically more than seven times the size of that mini-book. The notably terse Terzian effectively summarizes the lives and careers of each man in a mere 51 pages per president. This is a vertiginous drop of roughly 84 percent in length compared with the bigger tomes.
Why, just a few short years ago, did publishers deem these leaders worthy of biographies thick enough to stop a bullet? And why now do they publish a joint biography barely longer than a Wikipedia entry?
This is not a random event. It's the wave of the future.
Consider Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the subject an 800-page Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, Bearing The Cross, back in 1987, which was quickly dwarfed by Taylor Branch's definitive 1,088 page 1989 effort, Parting the Waters. By 2001, the "autobiography" of Martin Luther King, Jr., compiled from King's writings by Stanford University historian Claybourne Carson, came in at a relatively slimmed-down 416 pages. But now witness the modern truncation of King's vocation: Martin Luther King, A Life, by Marshall Frady, 2002, 228 pages; Becoming King by Troy Jackson and Clayborne Carson, published in February, 2011, 248 pages; and The Trumpet of Conscience, entering the lists in November, 2011 at a mere 96 pages.
Frady's King bio was published as part of the Penguin Lives series, which most clearly epitomizes a massive shift in book publishing. Recent Penguin Lives titles cover George H.W. Bush, Robert E. Lee, and Charles Dickens. Remarkably, each of the authors writing these books became famous as writers in previous decades for having written much longer books. Witness:
Tom Wicker wrote the Penguin Life of Bush I. It runs 240 pages. Wicker, a New York Times columnist, was best known for his book about the Attica prison rebellion, A Time to Die, published in 1976 and spanning 356 pages.
Roy Blount, Jr.'s Penguin Life of Robert E. Lee runs 240 pages. His brilliant and hysterically funny first book, About Three Bricks Shy of a Load, describing his time spent hanging around with the 1973 Pittsburgh Steelers, published in 1974, runs 376 pages.
Novelist Jane Smiley's Penguin Life of Charles Dickens covers a mere 224 pages, about the amount of time it took Dickens to clear his throat. By contrast, her first novel, Horse Heaven, published in 2001, ran a Dickensian 592 pages.
I could go on, but you get the point -- even authors who are famous for long books today are moving toward writing shorter ones. The publishers recognize that readers have shorter attention spans; maybe authors do, too. Are publishers still occasionally publishing doorstop-size tomes? Yes, because they think they should, but this is a trend with a rapidly approaching expiration date. Or maybe authors have developed as much ADD as their readers.