On reading REALLY BIG BOOKS

A lot of my most memorable reading experiences have been really big, heavy, just plain super long books. For example Moby Dick, Don Quixote, Infinite Jest, The Power Broker, A Pattern Language — all multi-month reads but IMO worth it.

Probably in large part because I’m more likely to think twice before starting such a lengthy reading endeavor, and also more likely to abandon part-way through if it turns into a slog (sorry Bleak House!) pretty much all the 1,000+ page books I can recall reading have been great.

Curious what your favorite long reads (ha no not a magazine piece that takes an hour to read; maybe we need a new term…mega-scripts? thunder-tomes?) have been! What should I tackle next?

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Moby Dick is def my fav long book, by the end I wanted it to keep going. It’s funny because not that much happens in the grand scheme of things, its length comes from Melville doing endless tangential digressions into whale lore. A++ would recommend

Anna Karenina is also fantastic, in contrast its length is used to discuss all the characters’ lives over a long period of time. Once it’s done you feel like you really know everyone. So much satisfying character development.

I also like long books just because it takes so long to read them that they become like a reliable friend who’s always there for you. It’s nice to know that when things go haywire irl, the long book will still be waiting for you as a steady and peaceful little world to escape back into.

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Yesss. Those parts are SO GOOD. I feel like it’s kind of a trope for people to complain about the weird digressions but as long as you’re in the mindset of, like, savoring beautiful and often hilarious language and insights, and not jonesing for cliffhangers, those parts are to be savored for sure.

Great point. Yeah if you’re consistently reading a really good book like a chapter or two a day for weeks / months it becomes kind of like furniture for the mind (a phrase that seems familiar though I can’t think where it comes from) — a sort of background presence that may subtly filter how you perceive or think about things, for the duration of that reading experience or perhaps lingering even longer.

Also makes me think of spaced repetition…reading long books probably lodges them more deeply in your memory kind of by accident, just by virtue of the recurring (and greater total) exposure. Maybe we can also think of a book you’re currently reading as being kind of loaded up in RAM — not necessarily in active use, but present, its world or way of seeing / thinking available to you for a time.

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As a teenager I used to be able to read long multi book fantasy novels, and I read through them so fast! I think part of that was having more free time and they are easy to read.

I started Ulysses last year and got 3/4 through, want to finish but just have some more time sensitive reads that need attention. I’m embarrassed to say I’ve been picking up mostly short stuff lately bc I know I can get through more reads quicker. Although I did spend a year doing longer reads Stalin’s Daughter/Purity/Years of Rice & Salt/a fantasy book. I think to get me through a long read it has to be really plot driven or just interesting info.

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My mother described “War and Peace” as “a room that you can step into”. I think that’s a good description of the book itself, and the experience of reading a really big book.

I suppose that could be true of a series as well.

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+1 for Anna Karenina - didn’t feel like a big book at all (except for the 100+ pages about Russian farming in the middle…) Great book tho.

I cannot recommend Godel, Escher, Bach highly enough. Literally changed my life. It’s a beast though and rewards reading in the style of at text book with exercises and worksheets

(also - THUNDER-TOMES !?!)

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@spike LOVE that. Yeah, long books feel like locations! That’s what they call world-building, I guess. Come to think of it, TV shows can feel like that too, if they run over a long period of time.

@saraha I’ve always wanted to read Ulysses. I tried but didn’t get past the first few chapters. I feel like I have to train for it by first reading all the books it alludes to, haha.

@tomcritchlow I loved the farming sections the most! Learned so much about how to manage an estate. Plus great nature descriptions. To each their own :smile:

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This one has been on my list for quite a while; I read the first few chapters but haven’t gotten through it. Seems like an ideal one to spin up a lil reading group…may have to give that a shot here at some point!

Should I use this in a blog post title? :rofl:

Is this kind of like the whale taxonomy sections (etc.) in Moby Dick? Speaking of very long books that include description of things that could sound dry but are actually fascinating…this one is also on my list!

I feel like McPhee is a master of elevating the mundane through a combo of being extremely perceptive, approaching a subject generously, and writing really really well.

I’m re-reading “Les Misérables”, and it definitely feels like a room that you can step into - I love the digressions on what was the fashion in Paris at the time, and the author’s thoughts on the revolution. I remember skipping these parts 20 years ago, and I’m really enjoying them now. Also, Paris hasn’t changed that much since Hugo’s time, so whenever I can I go walk by the streets mentionned in the book and I find it extremely cool to be where those fictional events would have taken place

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The biggest “book” I read was all seven volumes of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time in college (with a class, which believe me really helped). Because it’s such a project, and because we only had a semester to do it so we had to read a lot, every day, it started to change how I saw the world. I would “think” in similar ways as the books. I noticed similar things. I became very aware of how my thoughts were just long run-on sentences; In Search of Lost Time is famous for having sentences that go on for multiple pages, which is difficult at first but eventually you realize it’s much more natural (same could be said about Ulysses’s last chapter which similarly has no punctuation).

If I had read it alone, I think it would’ve been much more difficult. But reading with a small class and a professor who really knew Proust, I was able to appreciate finer details and untangle the meanings behind key scenes. I’ve never picked it back up since college, but I think I will again. If it’s a room I can step into it, it would certainly be a dark one: it would take some time for my eyes to adjust but eventually I’ll be able to find my way around.

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Some more recs here for very long books (weirdly, paywalled on the LA Times but syndicated on Yahoo News, don’t ask me…) that make for ideal quarantine reading:

https://news.yahoo.com/eight-great-very-long-books-140009572.html

The Gormenghast Novels is on my list, as is Chernow’s “Grant”. But many here I hadn’t heard of!

Your Face Tomorrow sounds awesome…

Our hero, Jaime Deza, separated from his wife in Madrid, is a bit adrift in London until his old friend Sir Peter Wheeler―retired Oxford don and semi-retired master spy―recruits him for a new career in British Intelligence. Deza possesses a rare gift for seeing behind the masks people wear. He is soon observing interviews conducted by Her Majesty’s secret service: variously shady international businessmen one day, would-be coup leaders the next. Seductively, this metaphysical thriller explores past, present, and future in the ever-more-perilous 21st century.

So does Wizard of the Crow:

Set in the fictional Free Republic of Aburiria, Wizard of the Crow dramatizes with corrosive humor and keenness of observation a battle for the souls of the Aburirian people, between a megalomaniac dictator and an unemployed young man who embraces the mantle of a magician. Fashioning the stories of the powerful and the ordinary into a dazzling mosaic, in this magnificent work of magical realism, Ngugi wa’Thiong’o—one of the most widely read African writers—reveals humanity in all its endlessly surprising complexity.

Really all of these seem like solid recs!

Interesting to note that a few of these are series / trilogies…or perhaps multi-volume novels, if that’s even a distinction that makes sense! From the article:

What’s the only thing better than one gigantic book? How about a group of linked books, all of them gigantic, adding up to an even more monumental work — one which gains power through its size. Robert Caro’s multi-volume biography of Lyndon B. Johnson is an example; so is William T. Vollmann’s massive nonfiction work “Carbon Ideologies.”

Do you feel like there’s any sort of important difference between a single “work” that’s split into multiple volumes for, you know, pesky little exigencies of time and space (too many pages; years between volumes, etc.) and something we’d instead call a “series”? Narrative concerns and publishing concerns can blend together…

Maybe the distinction is whether the author conceived / intended as a single cohesive work vs. if it’s more built around a world potentially containing various related stories but without one clear arc / endpoint?

I believe I shared this with you via email or elsewhere, @Brendan, but I wanted to share it in the forum here as well - I am reading the Quixote at present, and, if it hasn’t been lost in transit, I will be reading the “spurious part 2” by Avellaneda (a pseudonym for an enduringly unknown author) before I continue on to Cervantes’ part 2, the 1615 Quixote.

From what I understand, Cervantes was spurred into writing his own part 2 both in response to his dislike of Avellaneda’s work and essentially for the sake of “protecting his brand,” if you will. My intention has been to read these three works in the order they were published, 'cause that’s just how I geek, I guess… I ordered the Avellaneda around the middle of March, and it hasn’t arrived yet… so I may have to delay my plans and turn my attention back to Borges or Dostoevsky in the interim or surrender my plans of authentic chronological reading to the fates.

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I recently read Vikram Seth’s ‘A Suitable Boy’. It’s a huge book with many characters, but they slowly grow on to you, and when I finally finished reading it, though the book felt unnecessarily long, it felt as if I was parting from a huge family. The book beautifully captures the Indian social strata in 1950s, undercurrents of religious tension and the lives of people in a country re-creating its own identity after colonialism.

I guess the advantage with long fictional novels is, the author has enough time to introduce and get the reader emotionally attached with the characters. Then comes the convenience of inserting character and cultural nuances subtly, without having to explicitly elaborate them, because the reader understands the characters.

The only unfavourable aspect of physical long books to me is, not being to carry them around during commutes.

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Haha nice, I definitely try to do this with series when I can, but I read Don Quixote without no consideration for this spurious installment. (If a book is an interloper / imposter, what attention to we owe it?) Also thinking how in certain cases for longer book series there may be an official chronological sequence, a separate publication order, and (yet another possibility) various fan recommended non-chronological sequences that are billed as more fun, engaging, or whatever.

Also reminds me I still have to revisit Borges’ Collected Fictions at some point, love it but didn’t finish yet…that’s a great one where it’s a big book but only b/c it collects so much of his work all in one place. James Baldwin’s Collected Essays (Library of America) is another on my shelf along these lines.

Thanks for that rec! Hadn’t come across this one yet. And wow…looks like a seriously long one, like 1400 pages! Definitely something nice about getting to know the characters in a more slow and subtle way, drawn out over time.

Very good point…when I read The Power Broker with @jinjin a while back, I mostly read it at home, but she cut her copy into three sections (re-bound with tape) for more manageable commute reading. Ordinarily for super long books I’d tend to look for the ebook, but in many cases — e.g. The Power Broker, and looks like A Suitable Boy as well — there just isn’t an ebook version available!

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Thanks for mentioning this - I am familiar with the original Spanish title but was unaware this was such a significant collection. I have Labyrinths, Everything and Nothing (which combines some of his earliest stories with a number of his essays), and The Aleph and Other Stories, but there are a load of stores in Collected Fictions that I have never encountered. And then, just now, upon looking up Collected Fictions, I discovered Selected Non-Fictions which, in spite of its apparent selectiveness still adds up to 560 pages. I feel like I have my work cut out for me now!

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Selected Non-Fictions is so so good! His essays bring about the same stupefying wonder as his short stories do. It’s interesting to read this collection after reading his fiction because you get a sense of what an immense repository of books, ideas, & knowledge he’s working with to produce his stories. Can’t recommend it enough!

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Thanks for the recommendation, @cjeller1592!

I only recently discovered that he had published essays when I read Everything and Nothing which includes Borges and I, Everything and Nothing, Blindness, and Nightmares, each of which blew my mind. Some of his earliest stories (e.g., Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote) have such an academic feel to them they are like reading essays.

Given that his knowledge seems to have been as immense as his imagination, I am definitely up for reading the rest of his essays!

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