Reading by Numbers

Published by Kettle Magazine 26/07/2014

When we think of great novels we think mostly of words, but we might also think of a memorable piece of dialogue, or of a particularly strong image that stuck with us long after we’d finished reading. It’s less often that we think of books in terms of numbers, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t matter.

Is there a magic number?

What’s the difference between a novel and a novella? How short does a short story really have to be? And when does a poem become an epic?

A new infographic attempts to answer some of these questions, by charting the lengths of famous works of literature, from Dickens to Rowling, and Shakespeare to George R.R. Martin. So, is there a magic number for the perfect novel?

The short answer is, of course, no. What determines a books’ readability isn’t the number of words used, but how they are used. In literature, finesse and storytelling ability are just as – if not more – important than a propensity for splurging a great deal of words onto a page. After all, we’ve all heard the phrase “It’s not War and Peace” to describe Tolstoy’s longest and, arguably, most laborious work.

As it happens, it turns out that the Russian epic heartily warrants its lengthy reputation, being a novel to end all novels at a startling 561,304 words in length. To put that into context, James Joyce’s Ulysses comes in at a modest 265,222 words, and Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is one of the more surprising novellas on the list, at a meagre 28,944 words from beginning to end.

Short but Sweet

According to the people who define these things, a novella is a short novel between 20,000 and 50,000 words long. Although it is a doubtful grey area as to what we’d call a piece of writing that’s 19,999 or 50,001 words from beginning to end. But let’s not quibble.

What is interesting, is that the novellas popularity was at its peak during the mid to late 20th century, boasting authors including Orwell, Hemingway, and Steinbeck as well-known masters of the form. Some of their most famous works, including Animal Farm, The Old Man and the Sea, and Of Mice and Men, are also their shortest books, proving once and for all, that being concise can be more important than embarking on a love affair with adjectives.

For the greatest playwright of all time as well, it wasn’t the length of the play, but the impact of the words, that mattered. Although Shakespeare’s most famous play, Hamlet, is also his longest, the eponymous Macbeth is the shortest work the Bard ever wrote, and no less brilliant because of it.

The Modern Epic

In modern novels, however, we seem to expect a little something more from our fantasy series. It was, of course, Tolkien who popularised the fantasy genre as a work of serious literature, with his groundbreaking novels The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.

They set the bar for the fantasy genre as epic novel, with the shortest book being The Hobbit at 95,356 words, and the longest being The Fellowship of the Ring, at 187,790. And those figures don’t include the numerous appendices and histories that accompany the main narratives. If they were added together, the number would be far higher indeed.

Following in Tolkien’s footsteps, George R.R. Martin’s historical fantasy A Song of Ice and Fire, adds to the master’s word count. The series so far clocks in at an eye-watering 1770,000 words, with at least two more books still to come. By comparison, J.K. Rowling’s seven Harry Potter books combine to make a modest 1084,170 words in total, with the shortest by far being The Philosopher’s Stone, at 76,944.


In the end, our love affair with words can be counted, but the results cannot be quantified. From Tolstoy’s War and Peace, to Orwell’s Animal Farm, it isn’t the amount of words that matter, but what you do with them.

And perhaps no-one has proved this better than Hemingway’s six word short story:

For Sale: baby shoes, never worn.

The 1954 Nobel Prize for Literature winner is certainly a master of both brevity and storytelling. And so, with all apologies to Tolstoy, in the case of books at least, it’s clear that in the end, size really doesn’t matter.

NB:  All figures are taken from the original published texts, and may vary from edition to edition.

The Summer Book: It’s There in the Title

Published by Kettle Magazine 23/07/2014

Despite recent thunderstorms, summer is – apparently – upon us, and so are a wealth of articles recommending the best summer reads. Depending on your taste everyone’s summer read is different, but for me, there is none better than Tove Jansson’s understated  work, The Summer Book. After all, it’s there in the title really, isn’t it?

Interwoven Short Stories

Tove Jansson was a Finnish writer and artist who unfortunately died in 2001. She’s probably best known as the creator of The Moomin Stories for children, but The Summer Book was reportedly her favourite of the novels she wrote for adults later in life.

A quaint, simplistic, and incredibly beautiful book, it charts one summer in the life of an elderly artist and her six-year-old granddaughter, as they retire once again to a small scraping of an island in the Gulf of Finland. The book holds together as a series of intricately woven chapters charting the long and lonely summer months, each of which can easily be read as standalone short stories, but which reveal far more when read together as a whole.

An Artist’s Child

Six-year-old Sophia wakes in the night at the end of spring, and remembers that she doesn’t have to share a bed this year because her mother is dead. As her father buries himself in work, her one companion is her grandmother who, although dizzy, weak, and none-too-steady on her creaking limbs, becomes the little girl’s companion as the seasons change and the island begins to bloom.

Isolated together in a cabin in the middle of the vast ocean, grandmother and granddaughter learn to adapt to each other’s whims, roaming the island together, sleeping under bushes, and creating one little girl’s wonderland to share between them. They spend hours in ‘the magic forest’ tidying the ground, they unearth a seal’s skull and turn it into an enduring summer sculpture on the beach, and as the nights fall and the sun never truly dies, they lay in front of the burning stove that has become the centre of their insular lives.

A Tale of Life

Beneath the simplicity of this novel, lies a life-affirming tale examining the birth of seasons and the death of those closest to us. Quite out of the blue during one of their many games of make-believe, Sophia asks her grandmother:

“When are you going to die?”

“Soon,” Grandmother answers. “But that is not the least concern of yours”.

Under the surface of their joyful summer escape, lies a wounded little girl and her aging best friend, each seeing the world through different eyes, and teaching each other how best to live. Within the pine glades and storm-tossed seas that batter the dark rocks into oblivion, is a whole new story of what it means to be too young and too old in one small family.

In a world where night never truly falls, the duo’s compulsion to never waste the daylight is infectious. At all hours they carve boats out of bark and swim in the darkening sea. Jansson perfectly captures the love the Finnish people have for the sun; a symptom of an island of people who live so much of their lives in the dark.

A must-read for the summer

But it’s the author’s unique mix of a mother’s humour, an artist’s concept of beauty, and a child’s innocent grasp of psychology, that makes The Summer Book one of the great forgotten classics of Scandinavian literature.

Indeed, the book has never been out of print in Scandinavia, and the allure of summer permeates every page. It’s a hard book to categorise, being not quite a work of fiction, not quite new age philosophy, not quite action-packed enough to be called an adventure novel, and not quite laugh-out-loud enough to be truly recognised as comedy.

Despite an inability to slot it neatly into a category though, it is something truly sublime. Tove Jansson is one of the great forgotten geniuses of 20th century literature, and to read this book is to fall in love with life, and summer, all over again.

If you read one book in the warmer days to come, make it this one.

Park Hill Flats Regeneration – Television Report

In the heart of Sheffield sits Park Hill, a 50 year-old, 1,000 flat ‘mega-structure’ originally built as one of the UK’s largest social housing projects. Now, it’s largely uninhabited, despite the council’s efforts to re-populate the building. We speak to residents old and new, about life in the largest Grade II listed structure in Europe, and the controversial re-development that’s seen life-long residents evicted from their homes.


On-screen reporter: Rachael Venables

Research, interviews, filming and editing by Laura Elliott, Rachael Venables, Julia Rodriguez, Terry Wangari and Eleanor Kumar.