I Like Big Books and I Cannot Lie

 You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.

~ C. S. Lewis

I Like Big Books
My best friend got me this tote bag for my 30th birthday. Rarely has there been a better slogan.

crimson petalHere’s to doorstoppers! Books of 500 pages or more [the page count is in brackets for each of the major books listed below] can keep you occupied for entire weeks of a summer – or for just a few days if they’re gripping enough. There’s something delicious about getting wrapped up in an epic story and having no idea where the plot will take you. Doorstoppers are the perfect vacation companions, for instance. I have particularly fond memories of getting lost in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke [782] on a week’s boating holiday in Norfolk with my in-laws, and of devouring The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber [835] on a long, queasy ferry ride to France.

I have an MA in Victorian Literature, so I was used to picking up novels that ranged between 600 and 900 pages. Of course, one could argue that the Victorians were wordier than necessary due to weekly deadlines, the space requirements of serialized stories, and the popularity of subsequent “triple-decker” three-volume publication. Still, I think Charles Dickens’s works, certainly, stand the test of time. His David Copperfield [~900] is still my favorite book. I adore his sprawling stories crammed full of major and minor characters. Especially in a book like David Copperfield that spans decades of a character’s life, the sheer length allows you time to get to know the protagonist intimately and feel all his or her struggles and triumphs as if they were your own.

IMG_9439
Nothing ‘little’ about this review copy.

I felt the same about A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara [720], which I recently reviewed for Shiny New Books. Jude St. Francis is a somewhat Dickensian character anyway, for his orphan origins at least, and even though the novel is told in the third person, it is as close a character study as you will find in contemporary literature. I distinctly remember two moments in my reading, one around page 300 and one at 500, when I looked up and thought, “where in the world will this go?!” Even as I approached the end, I couldn’t imagine how Yanagihara would leave things. That, I think, is one mark of a truly masterful storyteller.

Slow but steady progress.
Slow but steady progress.

Speaking of Dickensian novels, in recent years I’ve read two Victorian pastiches that have an authentically Victorian page count, too: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton [848] and Death and Mr. Pickwick by Stephen Jarvis [816]. The Luminaries, which won the 2013 Booker Prize, has an intricate structure (based on astrological charts) that involves looping back through the same events – making it at least 200 pages too long.

It was somewhat disappointing to read Jarvis’s debut novel in electronic format; without the physical signs of progress – a bookmark advancing through a huge text block – it’s more difficult to feel a sense of achievement. Once again one might argue that the book’s digressive nature makes it longer than necessary. But with such an accomplished debut that addresses pretty much everything ever written or thought about The Pickwick Papers, who could quibble?

I was initially rather daunted by the heft of The Luminaries.
I was initially rather daunted by the heft of The Luminaries.

John Irving’s novels are Dickensian in their scope as well as their delight in characters’ eccentricities, but fully modern in terms of themes – and sexual explicitness. Along with Dickens, he’s a mutual favorite author for my husband and me, and his A Prayer for Owen Meany [637] numbers among our collective favorite novels. Most representative of his style are The World According to Garp and The Cider House Rules.


Here are a handful of other long novels I’ve read and reviewed within the last few years (the rating is below each description):

all the lightAll the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr [531] – The 2015 Pulitzer Prize winner; set in France and Germany during World War II.

5 star rating

In the Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman [555] – Digressive intellectualizing about race, class and war as they pertain to British immigrants.

4 star rating

son meyerThe Son by Philipp Meyer [561] – An old-fashioned Western with hints of Cormac McCarthy.

4.5 star rating

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach [512] – Baseball is a window onto modern life in this debut novel about homosocial relationships at a small liberal arts college.

4 star rating

discovery“A Discovery of Witches” fantasy trilogy by Deborah Harkness: A Discovery of Witches [579], Shadow of Night [584], and The Book of Life [561] – Thinking girl’s vampire novels, with medieval history and Oxford libraries thrown in.

4 star rating / 3 star rating / 3.5 star rating


And here’s the next set of doorstoppers on the docket:

Big Books stack

Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham [766] – A Dickensian bildungsroman about a boy with a clubfoot who pursues art, medicine and love.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt [864] – I have little idea of what this is actually about. A boy named Theo, art, loss, drugs and 9/11? Or just call it life in general. I’ve read Tartt’s other two books and was enough of a fan to snatch up a secondhand paperback for £1.

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James [686] (as with A Little Life, the adjective in the title surely must be tongue-in-cheek!) – The starting point is an assassination attempt on Bob Marley in the late 1970s, but this is a decades-sweeping look at Jamaican history. I won a copy in a Goodreads giveaway.

A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth [1,474!] – A sprawling Indian family saga. Apparently he’s at work on a sequel entitled A Suitable Girl.

This Thing of Darkness by Harry Thompson [744] – A novel about Charles Darwin and his relationship with Robert FitzRoy, captain of the Beagle.

The Last Chronicle of Barset by Anthony Trollope [891] – As the title suggests, this is the final novel in Trollope’s six-book “Chronicles of Barsetshire” series. Alas, reading this one requires reading the five previous books, so this is more like a 5,000-page commitment…


Now, a confession: sometimes I avoid long books because they just seem like too much work. It’s sad but true that a Dickens novel takes me infinitely longer to read than a modern novel of similar length. The prose is simply more demanding, there’s no question about it. So if I’m faced with a choice between one 800-page novel that I know could take me months of off-and-on reading and three or four 200–300-page contemporary novels, I’ll opt for the latter every time. Part of this also has to do with meeting my reading goals for the year: when you’re aiming for 250 titles, it makes more sense to read a bunch of short books than a few long ones. I need to get better about balancing quality and quantity.


How do you feel about long books? Do you seek them out or shy away? Comments welcome!

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7 thoughts on “I Like Big Books and I Cannot Lie

  1. Oh brill. I can’t BELIEVE you’ve not read The Goldfinch yet. You must read it without further delay. It only took me a week I adored it so much!
    As my reading tastes and goals develop I’m becoming more and more a fan of the quality Doorstop. I’ve lacked some decent ‘stories’ lately and perhaps that’s the answer. There are so many above you mention that are amongst my favourite books of all time (Crimson Petal, David C) or that I’m dying to read (A Suitable Boy, Little Life)….have you read A Fine Balance? Another corker……………I could go on all day. Don’t worry though, I won’t.

    (But I must stress the need to read at least one Dickens a year! Preferably in deepest, darkest Winter months)

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  2. I think I’ll save up The Goldfinch as a Christmas treat 🙂 It’s been quite a while since I picked up a new Dickens; I tried Dombey & Son a few years ago and failed at about page 120. I’ll need to choose the right book and the right time. After Death and Mr Pickwick, that should probably be The Pickwick Papers. I’ve heard great things about Rohinton Mistry’s books but haven’t read any of them yet. There seem to be quite a number of great Indian epics!

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  3. I thoroughly enjoyed this post! I have many of my own “big book” memories, brought to mind again when I look at your pictures. For instance: Reading “All the Light We Cannot See” on the beach in Key West, and immersing myself in “A Suitable Boy” during the last long week of my first pregnancy. I’m waiting, too, for the right moment for The Goldfinch. The thing about big books is that they need a nice expanse of time to feel more like pleasure than duty.

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    1. I quite agree — that’s why they’re perfect for summer vacations, long holiday weeks, or extended periods of travel. I think I’m more likely to have memorable moments with long books because they weave themselves into your life over the span of days or weeks.

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  4. Have you read A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry Rebecca? It’s not tooooo bad at 600+ pages, but it’s a wonderful read!
    I don’t shy from big chunky reads, and like you still have to read The Goldfinch. *blush*.

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    1. Ah, you’re the second to recommend Mistry. He needs to go higher up the TBR! I like knowing that I still have long indulgent reads like The Goldfinch ahead of me — I hope it lives up to expectations.

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