Chapters and Freedom

I’m in the middle of a really good book, Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. You might have heard of it. It made a big splash this summer when it came out, mostly because he refused to allow his debut novel to be in Oprah’s book club (he changed his tune this year). I was skeptical that it would be all that it is hyped up to be, but so far it is hitting the mark.

All except in one aspect, however; the chapters are unbearably long. I have a lot of required reading to do in my life, so when I squeeze in some personal reading, I like to set short, attainable goals for myself. For most books, it’s a chapter or two. But in Freedom, the shortest chapters are forty or fifty pages (big pages with small print), meaning it takes an hour or two just to do that. If I only have half an hour to read, I won’t even be able to finish one chapter. I don’t like leaving in the middle, so that means I won’t read. I’ll probably go to YouTube for entertainment.

I understand the reasons behind long chapters. In my personal writing, I hate deciding where chapter breaks should be. In Freedom, there is a pattern of changing perspectives and media, but within each section there are no further breaks. Even though I understand it, it drives me crazy.

The lesson I take from this, then, is that chapter breaks are important to readers. Some people take it to an extreme, of course (Dan Brown), but chapters give a book a predictable rhythm that allows readers to measure their progress and take breathers. It’s important to give the reader space to put down the book, cook dinner, and come back without worrying about remembering which paragraph they left off on. So Mr. Franzen, please, please, next time put in shorter chapters so I can enjoy the novel completely!

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8 thoughts on “Chapters and Freedom

  1. At least he has chapters in his books! I’ve read a couple books where there are NO chapters, and it is the most infuriating thing ever. But it’s a very valid point to make.

  2. Yes! Completely agreed! As has already been said, some books have no chapters… I’m trying to read A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and there he goes, no chapters. It’s so unsatisfying, and makes the story seem like it’s going by really slowly…

  3. I read your post about meeting writers before I read this and the effect is like BOOM, I get to make two points with one comment.
    Franzen scares the poo out of me partly for the way he worries about how modern technology is fracturing our minds and making us unable to process the amounts of information and get still, spend time in one place, like you would when reading, like he made me do in reading Freedom.
    Your comments about his book almost make his point in a way.
    I sunk completely in to Freedom like I haven’t in to a book since I was fifteen, traumatized and picked up The Talisman and went away for what was gratefully a long time.
    I will be publishing (woo hoo) an essay in the next issue of Line Zero (this is not a shameless plug I promise, totally relevant) about the myth of the dying reader and will address this thought that I have and your comments address this as well. As a reader I am constantly evolving, when I was thirteen my favorties were Peter Benchley and CS Lewis, shorter chapters, lighter concepts, great escape value. At sixteen I found I loved these big historical things like Lonesome Dove and Exodus. Now I find I need various forms, short stuff I can read cover to cover AND feel transformed by: The Lover, by Marguerite Duras is an excellent choice if you want shorter chunks, and then there was Atlas Shrugged. Big ideas, big chapters, long wandering verbose passages that made me wonder what I was doing to myself, until I came upon a point that had me wondering how I’d gotten through life without these thoughts in my head before (and I’m not a crazy Republican despite the fact that most of the people who recommend it lean that way).
    My point in all of that is that you’re young and I definately get your point about shorter chapters but also wanted to make the point that different books, like different friends, different types of music, work in their own wonderful and different ways.
    We have to discuss Freedom some time. I loved it the way it was though so far it hasn’t stuck with me and resonated like The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, another one I can’t recommend highly enough.

    • It’s interesting that Franzen probably did this on purpose. I think it goes back to the reason why you are reading; he probably wouldn’t like it, but the bulk of people read for entertainment, not appreciation of art. For me, the longer the thing I have to read, even when I am entertained and even when it is beautiful, the more burdened I feel.

  4. I could go on about this, as I can with everything book related. I’ll just add one more bit: another place where a writer beautifully addressed this topic is in the forward for Infinite Jest where Dave Eggars addressed the work vs. entertainment/pleasure issue.
    David Foster Wallace himself also addressed the entertainment angle in the Charlie Rose interview I posted on FB. It is supposed to be fun. It absolutely is. What has changed for me over the years is my definition of the word and what I expect as a reader. Also,what constitutes fun for one reader may send another reader screaming back to their Stephanie Meyer.
    If I hadn’t gotten hooked on the experience reading what many people would call garbage, I wouldn’t have the patience or inclination to go after the other stuff now. I absolutely believe we need all kinds of books and all kinds of readers and writers to make it all work.

  5. I think Franzen makes a point of ignoring the importance of the reader. That’s why he refused Oprah. It’s all about “the art”. Somewhere in his delusion of greatness he missed that a novel is a contractual agreement of sorts. The author asks the reader to give his time and effort, and in exchange commits to writing something worth that time and effort. Deliberately making a novel difficult to read breaks the contract. Chapter length matters. Simple English matters. It shouldn’t be necessary to curl up with a book and a dictionary at the same time. While it’s true that there’s plenty of room in contemporary literature for experimentation, that does not mean the audience should be ignored. So, I agree with Katie. All you authors out there, listen up. Remember that I’m the one buying your book.

    • After Mr. Magnuson’s very astute comment, I’m not sure Franzen claiming the reader is friend is enough to convince me. Maybe he has a different definition of friendship than I do.

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