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