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When size does matter: What’s the longest book you haven’t read yet, and probably never will?

September 1, 2011

Stephen King: Sure you're an MVP, but do us a favor and shorten your swing.

In honor of Peter Nadas’ upcoming novel, Parallel Stories, Flavorwire has an intriguing little featurette on long novels, listing 10 that, clock in at more than 1,000 pages, more praised than read. But it’s a sadly arbitrary list, and I believe you and I can do better. Let’s try!

For a list of upcoming activities at the Florida Center for the Literary Arts, visit the center’s website. And mark your calendar: This year’s Miami Book Fair International runs Nov. 13-20.

Hello, I’m Chauncey Mabe, your guide to the dark and dusty nooks of the book world, where the fun stuff hides. I’m back after a month-long sabbatical spent rafting down the Mississippi, consoling a heartbroken divorcée in New Orleans, hunting lions at the base of Kilimanjaro, eluding werewolf hunters in England, plotting in Winterfell to defeat the Lannisters, watching an old friend care for her dying mother in North Carolina, declining to transform into a digital devi in Dehli (say that three times fast!), standing with Curdie against the goblin, and camping out with a registered sex offender under a causeway in Miami — er, “Calusa.”

In other words, visiting old friends and making new ones.

But now I’m back, and if you don’t mind, I’ll ease into the daily routine with an easy one: Nadas’ defiantly ambitious Parallel Stories, which apparently fictionalizes the rise and fall of Hungarian communism and the entire history of the Magyar peoples, if Flavorwire is to be trusted, is merely the latest in a dismaying trend toward novels big enough to pose a public health hazard. Drop that thing on your foot and you’re maimed for life!

Please don’t think less of me, or doubt my bona fides as your humble literary guide, if I confess I do not love long novels. Partly this may be a matter of age. As a youth I tackled monstrosities the likes of The Brothers Karamazov, Atlas Shrugged (and Chauncey shuddered!), The Lord of the Rings, or Thomas Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers, and trudged faithfully to the end.

But as the arrow of life as reaches the apex of its flight and now angles gracefully toward the ground far below, I find my patience for fiction longer than 600 pages to be dwindling rapidly. Really, anything over 400 pages makes me start to itch in unreachable patches of my soul.

Blame it on attention eroded by  television or the Internet, or possibly a creeping realization of life’s brevity. But I think it may have more to do with my evolving appreciation for storytelling and writerly craftsmanship. What a good writer can’t say in 600 pages (nay, 400!) I’m not sure I want to know. I mean, once you’ve read one of Muriel Sparks’s tightly wound little origami novels, you’ll wonder why anyone needs more than 200 pages: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, one of the greatest novels of modern times, is a svelte 160 pages.

Or maybe it is television, who knows? After all I am a member of the first generation unable to recall a time before TV. In any case, I declined to read Stephen King’s toe-cruncher, Under the Dome (1074 pages), even though I loved its immediate predecessor, Duma Key (a tight 611 pages in the hardcover edition). Size, it seems, does matter.

The longest novel I’ve read in recent decades is Neal Stephenson’s sci-fi opus Anatham (960 pages), which would have been a masterpiece with about 400 pages lopped off.  Either tell a story or teach a seminar in advanced theoretical physics, Neal. And while you clearly understand the latter, you are much better at the former.

Flavorwire’s “10 Novels That We Dare You to Finish” includes another Stephenson novel, Cryptonomicon (1,168), along with Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities (1,824 pages), Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1,296 pages), Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (4,211 pages), David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1,104 pages), the aforementioned Atlas Shrugged (1,200 pages), Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy (1,349), Gone with the Wind (1,028 pages), plus one I’d never heard of, The Story of the Vivian Girls (15,145 pages).

That’s a dandy list, except for the obvious omissions: Where’s Stephen King’s The Stand (1,141 pages)? Or The Lord of the Rings (one novel, three volumes, at about 1,500 pages)? Or Ross Lockridge Jr.’s no-longer-read masterpiece Raintree County (1088 pages)? Or Roberto Bolano’s 2066 (okay, only 912 pages, but it feels bigger)?

Or Samuel Richardson’s important early novel, Clarissa (1,536 pages)? The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas (1312 pages)? James Clavell’s Shogun (1,152 pages)? Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables (1,488 pages, none of which can be sung)? Edmund Spencer’s epic poem, The Faerie Queen (1,248 pages)?

Or the longest book I know of, The Mahabharata, which comes in at 912 pages in one English edition, but which, I’m told runs to many thousands of pages in the Sanskrit, or 100,000 verses, or ten times the length of the Iliad and the Odyssey combined. Okay, technically The Mahabharata, like the Iliad, is not a novel, but like the Iliad, it tells a cracking national origin story of war among men and gods.

I’m sure I’ve left out some long books you either love or loathe or are about ready to admit you’re never going to get around to reading. Please share. Final confession: I enjoyed Swann’s Way, but somehow lacked the motivation to get through the rest of Proust. Am I going to literary Hell?

12 Comments leave one →
  1. Amy permalink
    September 1, 2011 12:51 pm

    I will not be reading “Infinite Jest,” 1088 pp., by David Foster Wallace. Truly enjoyed his essays and such, but all those footnotes in IJ, no way. And may he rest in peace.

  2. September 1, 2011 1:04 pm

    Pretty much anything by Ayn Rand–although I have read Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. I just assume the rest of her books are doorstops too…

  3. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    September 1, 2011 1:05 pm

    I feel much the same, although I may give it a go someday to see what all the fuss was about. I have friends who love it. And I’m curious about Foster’s take on self-help culture…

  4. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    September 1, 2011 1:18 pm

    Oh, and in case anyone is curious, the books referenced in my second graph, the ones I read on vacation, are: Huckleberry Finn, Robert Olen Butler’s A Small Hotel, Hemingway’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro, Dinisen’s Out of Africa and Beryl Markham’s West with the Night, Glen Duncan’s The Last Werewolf, the first two volumes in the Game of Thrones series, Pat MacEnulty’s Wait Until Tomorrow: A Daughter’s Memoir, The Year’s Best Science Fiction 2009 (the specific reference is to the last and best story, Ian MacDonald’s “Vishnu at the Cat Circus”, although Nicola Griffith’s “It Takes Two” is very strong), George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin, and I’m currently in the grip of Russell Banks’ new Miami-based ashcan novel, Lost Memory of Skin.

  5. September 1, 2011 1:40 pm

    I’ve always wanted to read War and Peace. I think I’ve bought four copies throughout my lifetime and I haven’t yet gotten past the first few chapters. I’m quite impressed by your reading list on vacation. During my vacation, I usually feel proud if I finish one book.

  6. Connie permalink
    September 1, 2011 2:50 pm

    I’m with Amy – I’ll never read Infinite Jest. Nor will I ever get past the first ten pages of Remembrance of Things Past. I tried, but it’s just not going to happen.

  7. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    September 1, 2011 3:34 pm

    Laura and Connie: Life is short and reading is fun. If you’re not getting paid or graded, read exactly what you want and nothing else. I know Connie’s with me on this. Literature is not medicine, it is not self-help, it is not religion: it is the expression of the soul’s joy at being alive in the quivering awareness that death awaits. Pleasure is the only justification for the solitary vice known as reading.

    Did I tell you the story of deciding to re-read Crime and Punishment, which I wrestled to the ground in my early 20s? I must have been 40, 45. I settled into my chair, adjusted the light, eager to see how my more mature sensibility might respond to this great work, and read the first eyes-too-big-for-your-stomach paragraph, after which I quietly closed the book and placed it down on the table, never to be touched again, except to transport it to a final resting place.

    • September 15, 2011 11:25 am

      I give thanks to my scholarly friends, those who had the knowledge and courage to read themselves and then encourage me to read the likes of War and Peace and Crime and Punishment; both amazing (amazing) pieces of literature. I am not, I am not pleased to say, “a big reader” but for whatever reason I felt compelled to endeavor to get into some of the masterpieces of literary history and I cannot tell you how grateful I am that I bit off more than I could chew.

      Sure, the melange of a truly remarkable romantic story on the cusp of crumbling Moscow with a doctoral thesis(-esque) on the definitions of time, power, and the influence of one upon the other throughout the history of man heavy (and often enigmatic due to my attention span… squirrel!) reading; but the story pushed me forward unlike the brilliant perspective could.

      What I’m trying to say is that like so many, many things in life the endeavors you speak of in the form of titles and pages are so much more often worthy of our patience and perseverance than not; we at the end of the “task” commonly finding ourselves better off than when we commenced our quest.

  8. Alan F Troop permalink
    September 2, 2011 12:15 pm

    Welcome back. I’ve been missing your blogs.

    As for your question – Well, I downloaded the audio version of Follet’s World Without End a few years ago thinking it would be good to listen to on a long trip. And 6 or 7 trips later still haven’t bothered to commit to it. My guess is, I never will.

    But I still do like occasionally losing myself in a long book. A case in point – I recently tackled GWTW and thoroughly enjoyed the long slog through it.

    Though the thought of writing something that long gives me the willies.

  9. September 2, 2011 1:59 pm

    Actually got through “Remembrance of Things Past.” Read most of it in Paris cafes, so that helped the pain a little. I think I liked it but that could be the kirs talking. Also slogged through “The Fountainhead” but skipped all the political junk because all I cared about was whether Roark and Dominique were going to get it on or not. Tried “Les Miserables” but quit half way through (I also left at intermission of Les Miz).

    Loved every purple word of “Shogun” but wouldn’t read Michener if you paid me by the word.

    I keep saying I am going to read that Foster thing, but footnotes? Life is too short and I don’t go to enough cocktail parties any more to make it worthwhile.

    Welcome back.

  10. September 2, 2011 6:45 pm

    Recently I revisited ATLAS SHRUGGED after my Liberal-turned-Libertarian- son made constant references to it as he plowed through it for the first time. Reading it made me realize what hyperbolic foolishness that woman was spewing, and how cults were seeded in her garbage.
    And— for long books that you might want to “have read” but don’t want to actually read, I highly recommend books on tape, accompanied by more than a smidgeon of patience. When you finally get to the last disc — two months later — your soul will rock from accomplishment. Welcome back ! .

  11. Sean Piccoli permalink
    September 3, 2011 8:12 am

    I got through C&P this spring using the reader’s equivalent of an eye dropper. I read it on my phone. It’s kind of a workaround for ADD (and for voluminous books). The phone screen makes pages tiny, and quick, promoting a sense (or illusion) of progress so long as you don’t look at the inflated page count. After many train and bus rides, it was done, and not unsatisfying. But “Notes from the Underground” was better.

    And here’s today’s decline of the printed word update:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/03/business/media/mass-market-paperbacks-fading-from-shelves.html?src=recg

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