Why We Claim Long Books Are Really, Really Good

Psychologist Tom Stafford has another fascinating “Neurohacks” column on the BBC website—this one about “cognitive dissonance,” or the discomfort we feel when our actions are out of line with our beliefs. We often deal with this uneasiness, Stafford writes, by simply changing our beliefs:

“This is why people forced to defend a particular position—say, because it is their job—are likely to end up believing it. It can also suggest a reason for why military services, high school sports teams and college societies have bizarre and punishing initiation rituals. If you’ve been through the ritual, dissonance theory predicts, you’re much more likely to believe the group is a valuable one to be a part of (the initiation hurt, and you’re not a fool, so it must have been worth it, right?).

Dissonance theory even explains why some really long books have such good reputations. Get to the end of a three-volume, several-thousand-page, conceptual novel and you’re faced with a choice: either you wasted your time and money, and you feel a bit of a fool; or the novel is brilliant and you are an insightful consumer of literature. Dissonance theory pushes you towards the latter interpretation, and so swells the crowd of people praising a novel that would be panned if it was 150 pages long.” (Read more here.)

What do you think: an explanation for the popularity of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest?

One Response to “Why We Claim Long Books Are Really, Really Good”

  1. matthew says:

    This is utter nonsense. The longest Harry Potter book, Order of the Phoenix, runs 870 pages. Just a few pages shy of Infinite Jest if you discount its footnotes (which don’t put it that far off HP’s page count anyway). My little brother at 10 years old is more than capable of sitting down and reading Order of the Phoenix in a couple of days with nothing you could call cognitive dissonance or regret.

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