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The Long and Short of It

April 4, 2011


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While there’s a special kind of magic to the perfectly balanced novella, and while most of my fiction reading is made up of average length books, my heart has always belonged to the loose baggy monsters. When I arrive at the library to pick up my holds, my heart will get a special little thrill when I see a massive novel waiting on the shelf for me; since I don’t usually notice the page count when I place a book on reserve, it’s always a pleasant surprise. I love these long books because I can surrender myself to an author, knowing that I’ll be in her world for much longer than an afternoon tea break. There’s just something deeply satisfying about knowing characters as they change and grow, watching them hit different life stages, just as you do your actual friends. (This is the same kind of magic that makes a marvelous series, like Laurie King’s Mary Russell books, such a thrilling find.) And when an author has the space to lavish attention on even the most minor of characters, it makes it feel as if I’m strolling along with the characters down the streets of whatever place they happen to reside. I even enjoy it when narrators go off on random philosophical asides; it reminds me of conversations you have with friends at college at three am when you’ve both had way too much coffee but have stumbled upon the meaning of life. And there’s something so comforting about holding a book and feeling that you still have the majority of it left to go, that you won’t be ripped from the cocoon for a while longer yet. It’s just so much easier to suspend my disbelief, my knowledge that this is fiction, even my awareness that I’m Eva, sitting in the twenty-first century, reading, when I have a sprawling novel in my lap. I find myself reading the way I did as a child, which is to say I lose my critical thinking and just exist in the book.

Of course, long books (which I tend to think of as five hundred pages or more) tend to be more common amongst older authors, the ones we think of as classics. I have a tendency to get along with nineteenth century authors, which probably aids my love of the style. But I don’t think massive epics are limited to the past; I loved A Suitable Boy, all fourteen hundred or so pages of which Vikram Seth published in 1993. On a slightly smaller scale, I also adored every page of Byatt’s The Children’s Book, which in paperback comes to almost nine hundred of them. While the door stopper approach to books might not be as common nowadays, I’m glad that the style hasn’t completely died out.

All of this assumes that the book appeals to me! Indeed, I can think of few things worse than loathing a book and realising I have seven hundred pages left. Fortunately, only one instance of this actually comes to mind for me (The Count of Monte Cristo, if you’re curious). So either I’ve had good luck or the kind of authors who are longwinded are usually the kind of authors who complement my reading style. As it is, I can think of nothing more delightful than curling up with a pot of tea and a novel taller than the pot!

Ironically, it seems my love letter to long novels is quite brief; I think I’m still spent from yesterday’s post. Which leads me to the request part of this post! I haven’t read very many huge novels this year, and I’m craving a few. So please suggest away your favourite fiction, either contemporary or classic, that are around five hundred pages or more (bonus points if they hit the thousand page threshold). And as always, I want to know your opinion: is your visceral reaction to chunksters one of delight or nervousness? Have you had any bad experiences with them in the past? Do you seek them out intentionally? And for you short fiction fans, don’t worry! I do plan to write a post in praise of novellas at some point; knowing me, it will probably end up as long as one. ;)

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76 Comments leave one →
  1. April 4, 2011 5:26 am

    I like long novels also and for much the reason you do. I get to know a set of characters, enter their lives and don’t want it to stop. Have you tried Dickens’ Bleak House? For years I was put off by the length and the title, but once I started it I did not want it to end.

    • April 4, 2011 7:09 pm

      Totally agree with Bleak House, I reread it every few years.

      • Caroline permalink
        April 8, 2011 6:46 pm

        I third the love for Bleak House – I know you haven’t enjoyed Dickens in the past, but I don’t think you read the right ones, IMHO :).

      • April 9, 2011 2:13 am

        Lol, Caroline. I watched the BBC adaptation of Bleak House and disliked it; do you all still think I’ll enjoy the novel?

  2. April 4, 2011 6:57 am

    I love a really long novel now and then. I just read The Portrait of a Lady (535 pages in my edition), and really enjoyed it. And my current read is over 700 pages: A Dance to the Music of Time, first movement. It’s 3 novellas in a single volume, and part of a series of 12 novellas. So if you want something really really long, read the entire series! I’m planning to do so, although not all at once :)

    • April 9, 2011 2:15 am

      Oh, I loved Portrait of a Lady! I’ve only heard vague things about A Dance to the Music of Time; what’s it about?

  3. April 4, 2011 7:53 am

    I don’t mind a long book as long as it’s good, but I’ve read a few that I felt could use a good editing. Have you read The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova?

    • April 9, 2011 2:16 am

      I haven’t; I read The Historian years ago, when it came out, and enjoyed it. I agree; some books definitely feel too long, even ones that aren’t technically chunksters.

  4. April 4, 2011 7:56 am

    I love those chunky books too. I read A Suitable Boy last year and loved it. Note that the sequel, A Suitable Girl, will be published in 2012 and will also be 1500 pages long.

    • April 9, 2011 2:17 am

      A Suitable Boy was marvelous! That’s great news about A Suitable Girl. :D

  5. April 4, 2011 7:58 am

    Just started reading ‘Du Côté de chez Swann’, the first part of Proust’s ‘A la Recherche du Temps Perdu’ – now that’s a long book ;)

    • April 9, 2011 2:18 am

      Ohhh: I’m thinking this is the year I’ll try Proust.

  6. April 4, 2011 8:04 am

    I love a good saga. In fact, I think I wrote a post about those long family sagas earlier this year. Ones by authors like James Clavell, James Michener, John Jakes, Susan Howatch, and the like. I have wondered about A SUITABLE BOY. Quite a time commitment. Have you read A FINE BALANCE by Rohinton Mistry? I loved that one. And my favorite chunkster of previous years (like 20+) is NOBLE HOUSE by James Clavell. Set in Hong Kong. Really fun.

    • April 9, 2011 2:19 am

      I haven’t read any of the authors you mention in your third sentence! But I’ve read both A Suitable Boy and A Fine Balance (loved the former, have mixed feelings about the latter). A Hong Kong setting sounds neat: is it historical?

  7. April 4, 2011 8:06 am

    Definitely a good visceral reaction—lugging them around feels like carrying an infant, both full of potential.

    Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is a marvelous chunkster, and Tigana is barely over five hundred pages. Somehow, I tend to hover around the four hundred mark, so I’ve not many recommendations to give here.

    • April 9, 2011 2:20 am

      I LOVE JS & Mr. N; in fact, I’m thinking I’ll do a reread this year. I do need to give Guy Gavriel Kay another go after not loving Ysabel.

  8. April 4, 2011 8:07 am

    I too adore a really great chunkster! It makes me sad that I seem to put them off over and over again, because it really is nice to get lost in a world for a huge amount of time. Big complex series also appeal, which is one of the reasons I love so much of epic fantasy, even when they do drag on for years and years.

    • April 9, 2011 2:20 am

      See, for some reason I’m more wary of series. Unless they’re mystery-style series, where each book is also a stand alone. I’m always worried the author will die or get bored and not finish it!

  9. April 4, 2011 9:28 am

    I second A Fine Balance and Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and add David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, which has footnotes (and sometimes the footnotes have footnotes).

    I love a chunkster, but I have to set aside the time, otherwise they stress me out.

    • April 9, 2011 2:22 am

      I’ve read AFB and JS & Mr. N, but not Infinite jest! I’m not sure Wallace is my kind of author…

  10. Heqit permalink
    April 4, 2011 9:53 am

    I love a long book, too, especially if I really have the time to sink into it. One relatively modern one that I adored was The Death and Life of Miguel de Cervantes by Stephen Marlowe. It’s only about 500 pages (but they’re large pages), but I enjoyed reading it so much that I would stop every 50 pages or so to get up and dance around the room with joy that such books existed and just to make it last longer. And the cover is GORGEOUS.

    On a less enthusiastic note…I love 18th- and 19th-century British literature and I love long books, but for heaven’s sake do NOT think that because Clarissa by Samuel Richardson is both that it would be good read. Dear GOD, that man needed an editor. Trying to read that book was like trying to jog in waist-deep water. I kept going and going and going and felt like I didn’t get anywhere and I was exhausted! I read it solidly for a month and only got 300 pages into it, and I can usually read a couple 300-400 pages books in a weekend. If you want to know eternity, and not in a blissful sense, read Clarissa. Oy. (I’m not saying it’s actually bad, mind you, just that your hair will go grey and fall out while you wait for Clarissa to stop crying and protesting about her modesty and obedience.)

    But…! That reminds me that my absolute favorite doorstopper of all, and possibly my favorite book ever, is Tom Jones by Henry Fielding. You may have read it already, of course, but if you haven’t, MAKE HASTE to thy library and get the unabridged version! It is SO. BRILLIANT. Fun and awesome and insightful and humanistic and romantic and satirical and idealistic and exciting and adventurous and wise and most of all, looooooooong. It is like the banquet of life in book form. Love!

    • April 4, 2011 6:32 pm

      I enjoyed Clarissa and, yes, it did go on and on. I was pregnant at the time and that seemed to go and on also. I managed to finish Clarissa before the baby was quite done.

      • Caroline permalink
        April 8, 2011 6:48 pm

        I thought Clarissa was wonderful, despite the length (but then every so often I took a break and read another, shorter book, before getting back into Richardson’s massive tome)!

    • April 9, 2011 2:23 am

      That Marlowe book sounds interesting! And I really want to read Tom Jones this year; I started getting into 18th century lit last year but I have yet to read it or any Fielding. I’ll have to load it on my Nook! Also lol @ the different reactions to Clarissa.

  11. April 4, 2011 10:33 am

    Bleak House, Armadale, Drood, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, and The Forsyte Saga!!!

    • April 5, 2011 12:38 pm

      I just finished Drood and really enjoyed it, so I second that suggestion.

      • Ruthiella permalink
        April 5, 2011 7:23 pm

        I loved “Drood” too, but will it bother Eva that Wilkie comes of as he does?

      • April 9, 2011 2:24 am

        Ohhh: I’m a Wilkie fangirl and a bit of a Dickens hater, so I suspect Drood is not for me. ;) Amanda, I’ve watched the adaptation of Forsyte Saga and didn’t like any of the characters; is the book better? I find it difficult to stick with a chunkster when I don’t care what happens to the characters because I dislike them, lol. I’m ‘saving’ Armadale, since it’s the only long Wilkie novel I have left!

  12. April 4, 2011 11:32 am

    I am one of those people who tends to get stressed out by chunksters… It’s rare that I don’t find my attention waning around the 350 page mark in books that are huge, and it always makes me worry when I know I have so much more to go. Of course, I do occasionally get into the mood where I want something huge to sink into. There is something immensely rewarding about being completely sucked into a place that is other.

    One recent chunkster that I absolutely devoured was A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness. I think it has a lot of elements that you would enjoy (though I admit it is probably a lot fluffier than much of what you read… still it involves an academic researcher who is a witch!).

    • April 9, 2011 2:25 am

      Fair enough re: the stress! A Discovery of Witches sounds…interesting…from all of the blog posts I’ve read about it. lol

  13. April 4, 2011 12:02 pm

    I once taught a nine year old whose sole criteria for choosing a book was that it was long. This could be disconcerting, because when he first joined my class the book he had tucked under his arm was Jeffrey Archer’s ‘Kane and Abel’. Fortunately he didn’t seem to understand some of the more ‘interesting parts’ and I rather rapidly introduced him to ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and from there into writers who build a group of characters over a series. However, he would still wander into secondhand book shops with his pocket money and pick up whatever looked to be about the right length. He was reading “Gone with the Wind’ when he left me. I’d love to know what he’s reading now, when he will be nearer to thirty-nine.

    • April 9, 2011 2:27 am

      I remember going to the bookstore w my parents before one of our cross country trips. I was allowed to choose just one book, so I chose the longest I could find! lol Sounds like a good thing you did, introducing him to LOTR. :)

  14. April 4, 2011 12:12 pm

    Oooo some great recommendations, I loved Middlemarch and last years booker winner Wolf Hall by Hillary Mante and Possession by A.S Byattl. One of my favourite discoveries was The Children’s War by J.N Stroyar an imagining of what would have happened if Hitler had won the war – not normally my type of thing at all.
    I’ve just finished War and Peace and just started Les Miserables, I love long novels for the depth of character, the families and interwoven stories, but alongside them I tend to read losts of novellas and shorter novels so I still have the feeling of succeeding when I finish a book.

    • April 9, 2011 2:28 am

      I loved Middlemarch, Possession, W&P, and Les Mis too! I’ve yet to read Wolf Hall, though. The Children’s War doesn’t sound like my usual book, either, but since you recommend it I’ll put it on my list. :)

  15. April 4, 2011 2:07 pm

    PROUST! God I love Proust. He’s fantastic and he’s as long as you could possibly wish. :-) The first chunk of In Search of Lost Time (Swann’s Way) is even available in a lovely Lydia Davis translation for your reading pleasure.

    I’d also second Middlemarch and Wolf Hall. You might also enjoy Peter Carey’s Illywhacker, which is big and sprawling and delightfully odd. (And Aussie fiction for you! With hints of magical realism!)

    • April 9, 2011 2:29 am

      I was thinking I should give Proust a go this year, and my library has the Lydia Davis translation. :) I’m planning on reading the Alain de Botton book first, though!

      Illywhacker sounded so marvelous that I ran over to my library site to put it on hold, only to be crushed to discovery they don’t have it. I might just ILL it. At least they have Wolf Hall! ;)

  16. April 4, 2011 3:16 pm

    Honestly, I’m daunted by long novels. I have little time to read and I really just can’t get through them before I have to take them back to the library these days. The first long novel that comes to mind that I loved is The Brothers Karamazov. I am currently reading the first volume of Mark Twain’s autobiography, but I expect it to take me all year. I think short to medium length books help me feel like I’m actually getting more reading accomplished in my busy life.

    • April 9, 2011 2:31 am

      Library due dates definitely complicate things! I have The Brothers Karamazov around here somewhere; I really need to read it! And I get that the shorter books make you feel like you’re reading more. :)

  17. April 4, 2011 3:21 pm

    I too love a long book. The more pages the better for me. :-)

    If you’re in the mood for some fantasy, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke is wonderful and A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness was a great chunkster too. I loved A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin as well. It’s fantasy with a political twist.

    • April 9, 2011 2:33 am

      I love JS & Mr. N! Is A Discovery of Witches at the same level?

  18. Amy C permalink
    April 4, 2011 3:55 pm

    I definitely agree with you – I LOVE those huge long novels! There’s just something happy about seeing it there waiting for you to begin. Some of the longer books that I’ve read and enjoyed lately have already been mentioned here (like Wolf Hall and The Children’s Book). Of course Middlemarch, and most of Anthony Trollope. Recently I finished The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall and loved it!

    • April 9, 2011 2:34 am

      I love Trollope too! And squee for another fan of The Children’s Book. :D (We seem to be a rare breed.) I’ll have to put the Udall on my list.

  19. April 4, 2011 4:49 pm

    I love long novels too for all the same reasons as you said. The last one I just finished was East of Eden by Steinbeck (600pp). I have many on my shelf waiting to be read.

    • April 9, 2011 2:34 am

      East of Eden was so marvelous; I read it ages ago, so I really should do a reread.

  20. April 4, 2011 5:34 pm

    I like long novels but it’s been a while since I read one, a properly really long novel. Blogging has made me nervous of them! I feel like if I’m going to make that kind of time commitment, with the attendant lapse in posting, I should be pretty confident that I’m going to like the book. Nothing huge has appealed to me lately. Maybe I should read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell again.

    • April 9, 2011 2:35 am

      Read them anyway: to hell with blogging! ;p And I’m thinking it’s time for a JS & Mr. N reread.

  21. April 4, 2011 5:42 pm

    I can’t say I’ve read any chunksters lately that I’ve actually liked all that well, so I don’t have any suggestions. I’m not sure I’ve ever been terribly intimidated by the size of a book, but I do have a bad habit of not finishing them until the night before they’re due back at the library after maxing out the renewals. I guess my problem is more with chunky books that really should have been edited because the contents are not worth the thickness–I’m perfectly fine with doorstops that are evenly and well written all the way through.

    • April 9, 2011 2:35 am

      It is frustrating to read a chunkster that isn’t very good!

  22. April 4, 2011 7:27 pm

    I love big long books, although I do occasionally get nervous when starting one and feel guilty because I have a decent sized stack of review copies. Unlike you though, I loved Count of Monte Cristo.

    • April 9, 2011 2:38 am

      I’m definitely in the minority re: Count of Monte Cristo.

  23. April 4, 2011 8:03 pm

    I, too, get that thrill at seeing a chunkster waiting for me. For historical fiction, I love the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon. For modern fiction, I Know This Much Is True by Wally Lamb.

    • April 9, 2011 2:39 am

      I’ve read the earlier Outlander series; I think I lost interest after 5 or 6. I haven’t read any Wally Lamb!

  24. April 4, 2011 8:41 pm

    I like big books, I cannot lie. ;) No seriously, I do. I don’t read them as often as I wish I could because there’s a ton of other books I also want to read (not enough time to read all the books I want!).

    This year, one of my reading goals is to read 3 chunksters that have been on my virtual to-read shelf for several years. I have Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin (nonfiction) planned for May/June and Middlemarch by George Eliot planned for November/December. My first read, in January/February, was The Count of Monte Cristo – I enjoyed it, but I remember reading your thoughts on it and I understand your criticisms.

    Quite a few of the books you mentioned in this post are on my virtual to-read shelf. I’m hoping to get to them soon…sometime soon, I hope. Here are a few big books that I’ve read and I think you might like (in no particular order):

    *Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
    *The Far Pavilions by M.M. Kaye
    *Roots by Alex Haley
    *Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell

    • katrina permalink
      April 5, 2011 12:43 pm

      I’d forgotten about Roots, an amazing book

    • April 9, 2011 2:40 am

      Your plans sound like fun! And I know I’m definitely unusual for not liking Monte Cristo; I’m glad you got more out of it.

      Of your suggestions, I’ve only read JS & Mr. N, so thanks!

  25. April 5, 2011 8:21 am

    I’ve had a hankering for longer novels recently and I’ve just embarked on ‘The Mill on the Floss’ by George Eliot, a book I’ve tried to read twice before without success. Hopefully it’ll be a case of third time lucky, as I really fancy getting lost in a slow, meandering novel.

  26. April 5, 2011 4:01 pm

    There’s nothing better than a big heafty book that you are loving and the moment when you realize you’re only half way through. I loved War and Peace, David Copperfield, The Portable Dorothy Parker (collection, not one novel obv) and Les Miserables. The Pillars of the Earth was a bit silly, but I still loved it. Happy reading!

    • April 9, 2011 2:41 am

      So true Melissa! And I do need to read some Dorothy Parker one of these days. :)

  27. April 5, 2011 4:09 pm

    unfortunately, since my reading time has gone down, HUGE books make me panic. And because of my book groups. I have a few “must reads” each month so I wonder how I’ll finish.

    I say this because I’m in the midst of Don Quixote and not liking it at all. And there is so much more to go I think I’m going to die. Book group in two weeks Argh!

    Most of the books I read, though, are huge. I loved MIDDLEMARCH. I’m also currently reading or about to read GONE WITH THE WIND, THE MILL ON THE FLOSS, THE PICKWICK PAPERS. All are huge.

    • April 9, 2011 2:42 am

      That makes sense Rebecca: it’s definitely a luxury to have a lot of time to read! I haven’t tried Don Q yet; are you reading the new translation?

      • April 9, 2011 6:24 am

        Yes, I’m reading the Edith Grossman translation. And it’s growing on me. Still not a favorite, but I can see why Cervantes has stood the test of time. He’s doing something quite new here. I hope to have my thoughts up on the first part next week!

  28. April 5, 2011 5:11 pm

    I also love huge novels (although I tend to think more of 700+ page novels). When I look at the books I have chosen for the shelves in my house (favorites are on shelves, the rest are in stacks waiting for shelves), many of them are quite large. I also love the increased depth of plot, the well-built characters and everything that comes with a long novel.

    Have you read East Lynne or Armadale? Those are both ones that I would love to re-read soon (as well as A Suitable Boy).

    • April 9, 2011 2:43 am

      I love huge novels too, and I totally can see 700 pages as a dividing line! Looking at the page numbers of past books I’ve read, I’ve been surprised to see that books I thought of as ‘not too long’ are actually over 500. I’m saving Armadale, since it’s my last Wilkie chunkster. ;) And I haven’t even heard of East Lynne!

  29. April 5, 2011 6:38 pm

    I too love a good chunkster. If a book is really good, I want to spend as much time immersed in it a possible. You’ve gotten lots of good suggestions already, and I’d especially second the Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell recommendation if you haven’t read it.

    And I’ll add the historical fiction of Dorothy Dunnett. Her books tend to hover around 700 pages and are incredibly rich and detailed–and she wrote two complete series of chunksters! My favorite is her standalone novel, King Hereafter, but it takes a while to get going. I usually recommend her Lymond books to folks looking to try her out.

    • April 9, 2011 2:44 am

      Seriously, all this talk of JS & Mr. N makes me want to reread it right away! I’ll put Dunnett on the list; thanks for giving me a standalone recommendation in addition to a series. ;)

  30. April 7, 2011 4:43 pm

    I tend to like my serious fiction and my fluff fiction to be long. This is probably because when I get on a plane it’s often for 24 hours.
    Long books I’ve enjoyed recently – The Seamstress, by Frances de Pontes Peebles. I read about 150 pages one night (when I should have been asleep) and eventually had to recognise that I would not finish it that night! Which is probably why I tend to stick to the shorter stuff or stuff I can put down easily!

    • April 9, 2011 2:45 am

      That makes sense Yvann! I read The Seamstress last year. :)

  31. April 7, 2011 5:24 pm

    I have to add to the Proust recommendations — In Search of Lost Time did take me two years (and led me to book blogging just so I’d have someone to talk to about it), but it was like finding a friend I was never tired of. Middlemarch and Anna Karenina are two of my other big favourites and if you haven’t read Wives & Daughters yet, that’s really good too. Big books often tend to make me restless, I keep thinking I should be able to handle more of them (like Thomas Mann) since reading Proust, but I also have to really love the book to bother with that kind of length.

    • April 9, 2011 2:46 am

      Ok, ok, this shall be my year of Proust. ;) Middlemarch & AK are both marvelous! I haven’t read Wives & Daughters because I watched the BBC adaptation and I’m afraid that I’ll prefer the film, the way I did North and South. But I did love the book version of Cranford, which I’ve heard W&D is more like, so I should just get over it. ;)

  32. April 8, 2011 4:39 am

    Wizard of the Crow by Ngugi wa Thiongo. African writers typically don’t write long novels but Wizard is an exception. My review will be up this weekend or next week.

    • April 9, 2011 2:46 am

      Oh: can’t wait for your review! I have a different book of his out right now; it’s much shorter.

  33. April 9, 2011 8:35 am

    I really loved the Book Thief by Mark Zusak. I am almost finished with The Chess Garden which starts off VERY slowly, but ulitmately is enganging. I, too, enjoy long novels when they are rich and wonderful. If a novel is slow, boring, or not enganging for a long time, I often feel frustrated.

  34. Caroline permalink
    April 10, 2011 4:46 am

    Re: Bleak House discussion above (sorry, couldn’t find the reply button): If you didn’t like the BBC version, which I thought was very faithful to the book, then you almost certainly won’t like the book. I guess Dickens really isn’t for you! :) Never mind, we can’t all like the same things – that would be boring!

  35. April 12, 2011 2:51 pm

    I’m a behind in my blog reading so I’m late to respond. I am very hesitant to pick up a great big book. My reading time is quite limited as it is with 2 little boys to take care of so I hate to invest a great deal of time in a story. I feel like I’m missing so many other (shorter) books. That being said, I realize that I do enjoy losing myself in the story and that doesn’t happen as often in a shorter book…something to think about the next time I shy away from that thick book!

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