I recently read of a music writer who believes the perfect pop song lasts precisely two minutes and 42 seconds. Crazy though it sounds, he may be on to something. Try ordering your iTunes collection by duration and you may find as I did that songs of that length seem slightly better on average than any others.
For the record, mine include ‘Michelle’, Elvis’s ‘Funny How Time Slips Away’ and ‘Love me Tender’, Johnny Cash’s ‘Folsom Prison Blues’, Josephine Baker’s ‘Si J’étais Blanche’, ‘California Dreamin’’ by The Mamas and the Papas, ‘The Wanderer’ by Dion and the Belmonts and ‘This Charming Man’ by The Smiths. So, just as you could build a decent music collection by buying music only by people who died in plane crashes, I suspect you could also survive with only a playlist called 2’42”.
(Incidentally, Dion — of Dion and the Belmonts — nearly ended up on both lists. Had he not needed money for drugs and drink, he could have paid to join Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and companions in the Beechcraft Bonanza rather than going to the next engagement by bus. So, thanks to heroin, he’s still alive and well in Florida, aged 70. They don’t tell you that in school, do they?)
Hitting on the optimum length for any creative form is a strange process indeed. The pop song was in part defined by what fitted on a single side of a 78rpm record. The play and the opera are constrained by many external variables, including the size of the human bladder. Movies need to be of a reasonable length to justify the price of a cinema ticket and the effort of going to the cinema (though many of the best black and white films are surprisingly brief — possibly because they were bolstered by a supporting feature). The typical YouTube film is only a few minutes long. The normal length of a book largely derives from its physical form — and the fact that you can’t charge £15.99 for anything more concise than 100,000 words.
Dr Johnson said of Paradise Lost, ‘No man ever wished it longer.’ Is this also true of most modern books? It’s certainly rare for anyone to say of a book that it seemed 100 pages too short. And you can’t claim length and depth are correlated. Hamlet seems to get along with only 12 per cent of the words of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.
This question of form has been playing on my mind ever since my Kindle arrived last week. I find the prospect of intangible literature fascinating. Just as iTunes is slowly killing off the album by allowing people to pick and mix tracks one at a time, will the Kindle reshape the form in which we consume novels? What would happen if you could pay to read books one chapter at a time, rather than paying for the whole lot upfront? And what happens to book sales if books lose their secondary role as a kind of soft furnishing? What do people read on the tube when nobody else can see what they are reading?
That’s another thing to be said for the Kindle. It’s the last discreet way to read the Daily Mail. Plus, when The Spectator arrives wirelessly, you get to read it two days early, not three days late. Mobile networks rarely go on strike.