If I see someone reading an extravagantly long book, I want to square up to them and say, “Oh, we’re all very impressed.” Reading a long book sometimes seems like a statement. Usually, of course, it isn’t, but it somehow feels… rhetorical. “Holding this 800+ page book under my arm means I am several steps ahead of you, so don’t even try it.” In reality, it is just the literary equivalent of binging on a TV series. When you’re in, you wanna stay in – and a really, really long book does that much better than a normal-sized one. This is a list of books to totally lose yourself in – whether it’s for summer or to bridge the long stretch until summer or in a bout of holiday or post-holiday blues, missing your family or stuck with your family – come to think of it, there’s really no bad time to read a long-ass book. If you are wanting to make some sort of statement with your reading material, I’ve included some suggestions.
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy – This one is especially good if you happen to be missing your loved ones or feeling isolated. A book is not a substitute for a person, of course, but at least in reading this, you won’t just be numbing yourself to aloneness. This is self-care through literature. I know it looks long and stuffy and ponderous, but don’t be fooled. The ol’ Dub-n-P is not a drone of tea -n- jam and tall fuzzy hats. It’s both profoundly intimate and vastly epic. This will bridge the lonely hours and drop you right down into a better place. This makes a good statement. It says, “I may be just one thread, but I am still woven into the human tapestry.”
Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes is vast. It’s not just the length, but the amount of invention that fills a story of a fake knight, with his fake squire, attempting a rescue of a fake princess. On the surface, it doesn’t seem like that’s a lot to work with, but it made me want to turn it into a video game. It’s an endless mishap, a Medieval The Hangover parts 1 thru 50, plus actual pathos. You are saying, “You can call me crazy, but you can’t call me a coward.”
Don Delillo’s Underworld will lead you a circuitous way thru finely detailed episodes of American life and history from the early 50s to the present (well, mid 90s). This thick, hairy beastie is up there on stage with a sash and one-piece in the Miss Best American Novel pageant. Its many characters play their parts on the stage of the atomic cold war, with much sneaking around backstage and goofing off up in the box seats. This says “ ‘Merica? ”
Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon tells the story of the two eponymous explorer/adventurers Charles Mason & Jeremiah Dixon, responsible for the M&D Line which divided Maryland & Pennsylvania in the 1760s. This is Pynchon, though, not James Michener or John Jakes. This is deep, broad history dunked in a time machine and deep fried in weirdassery. You are saying, “I can read 4 books at one time, while high as Franklin’s kite.”
A Moment in the Sun by John Sayles offers a turn of the century, 5-year-span history following several characters: Filipino, African-American, and two other Americans from differing social strata. Gold-rushin’, Spanish-American War, gamblin’, race riots: reckon it’s more America than you can handle. He’s a big time movie director, so he’s good with painting pictures in your head, but he’s really serious about the history – not just the entertainment. He’s just an all-around story guy: grit, detail, pathos – this says, “I ain’t surprised by the news, cuz we’ve always been like this, but let’s keep trying to figger it out.”
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is a much-lauded fantasy/magic alterno-history from Susanna Clarke. Her heroes revive the art of magic – the Merlin magic, not the Crissangel magic – and aid in Great Britain’s fight against Napoleon’s France. Things might go slightly awry. The style of the writing fits the period of the story and the drawing room Britishosity of its setting. It’s gonna be a BBC series in the nearish after-now. This says, “Yes, I know I look good, but I am also smart and a lot of fun.”
James Clavell’s Shogun put samurai-era Japan on the Western map. Want to go somewhere in space and time without leaving the chair you’re sitting in? Shogun is a pretty good bet. Credentials: Clavell was a Japanese POW in WWII, he wrote a metric ton of books on Asia and such films as The Great Escape and To Sir, With Love (and The Fly… which is a weird outlier). He’s got your wordsmithing and your close up POV. This tells the world, “Go ahead with the Wii Bowling, I’ll be in the other room, on the other side of the Pacific, 400 years ago.”
Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth is probably good if you like European history, but get a little bored with non-fiction. Exquisite detail, multidimensional scope – thru time and… uh… height. It’s about the construction of a cathedral, and the many, many people involved in that process over several decades. Here’s Oprah’s reading guide (we should have one of these) I think his website is hilarious… HE IS THE MASTER STORYTELLER. This says to everyone, “I am interested in the world, how things are made, how things work and I read MASTERFUL STORIES.”
The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio is a blend of Canterbury Tales and the prison stuff on Walking Dead. A group of travelers shelter in a country villa, whiling the hours away (1000 some odd pages of hours) with stories, whilst the Black Plague rages around them. It’s the perfect metaphor for escaping into a really long story. This says, “I have a big fat brain.”
Infinite Jest from David Foster Wallace is the other book you knew would be on this list. Everything gets brushed up against in this leviathan – drugs, death via film, tennis – pour éxamplé – and there are handy footnotes, if you’re an OCD (Obsessive Completist Dude) like me. You know it’s great because some critics have said it totally sucks. Reading this book says, “Québec!”
Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy is another “get the hell outta Dodge” selection, meaning it will take you far away from where you are now (unless you are now in post-colonial India in the early 1950s). It’s a slice of family history about an independent-spirited young woman in a time/place where she is not supposed to be independent-spirited. It’s also a history of a young nation’s independence, as it tries to viably express its ancient self in the modern world. A Suitable Girl is in the works. Read this if you want to say, “I’ve had this long book for over five years, and I’m finally getting around to reading it!”
Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries is a gigantic mystery adventure that won the Man Booker prize in 2013. It has a verrrry slow build with intricacies and unresolved bits to get lost in. Lots of confusion, so lots of stuff to unravel. This says, “I only read prize-winning novels from New Zealand.”
The Grim Reaper was on Roberto Bolano’s tail with this one, but as ol’ Skullz in da Hood caught his heel, Sr. Bolano sank this longshot into the corner for the win. 2666 is a multi-spoked sprawl with a hub. The spokes are the separate sections of the novel, which were almost published separately. The hub is the series of murders of women – hundreds – in a Mexican border town. Who, what, why – you might never know, even after 900 pages. This is a challenging novel. This bad boy says, “I am ahead of the curve.”
The interesting thing about …And the Ladies of the Club by Helen Hooven Santmyer is not that there are ellipses in the title, but that the ellipses come first. Fascinating. I used to make fun of this book, because – at a distance – I thought it was a thousand pages of “stitch-n-bitch”, but apparently it’s several decades worth of small town Ohio culture, centering around …a ladies club. It blew everyone away when it was published in 1984. Not quite a literary classic, it is definitely a paragon of entertaining fiction. It says to the people around you, “…I am from the midwest.”
The Tale of Genji or Genjimonogatari (trans. “The Tale of Genji” – Duh.) is considered by many the first novel ever, anywhere. It is about the love life of a male courtesan in medieval Japan. Author Murasaki Shikibu was a courtesan herself, so she knew what she was talking about. Here’s an awesome site with pix of the locations in the story. This novel says “I have mastered manga, and I’m ready to level up. But no, you can’t have my Saber saber.”
You got a yappy grandpa who tells all the same stories over and damn over again? Shut him up with this: Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom by Conrad Black. Of course you love your dearest G-pa. You just want him to stop talking. Here’s your 1360 pages of STHU. (Actually, the trick works with anyone.) This says, “If Grandpa’s happy, everyone is happy. shhhhh – look – he fell asleep” *
The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L Shirer is exactly what its title says. This history is universally praised for its insights and scope. This one is actually a specialized holiday tool. If everyone else is singing songs about red-nosed forest critters, or hunting for pastel-colored eggs or heading back to ride It’s a Small World one last time before vacation ends, reading this says, “I would rather read this impossibly long history of horrible people doing horrible things than talk to YOU, so don’t even waste your sulfurous, dog-vomit-eggnog breath.” If you read this during the holidays, you are a jerk. Reading it at any other time means you are damn serious about history, cuz dude – it is a long book and it is about Nazis. Gross.
* Note: Do not ignore your grandparents. Time is more important to them than it is to you. Make them a nice beverage and ask them about their lives.