Eleven (Really) Long Novels Worth Your While

Have you ever been a little frightened to read a particularly long book?

You’re not alone. Even those of us for whom reading is second only to breathing and eating as a necessary pastime (Am I exaggerating? I can’ tell.) sometimes avoid those most sizable tomes, for one reason or another. Because we love to read, we may feel as though devoting the weeks or even  months required to finish a behemoth shortchanges us because in that time we might finish two or three shorter works and be all the richer for it. It’s also possible that we dismiss these doorstops because we feel a certain antipathy towards those authors who can’t find a way to say their piece in fewer than 500 pages.

While there are kernels of truth embedded in those outlooks, there are flaws as well. Sure, some gigantic novels are mostly the result of the padding employed by authors who were paid to write their work serially, when word-count correlated directly to the size of their checks (I’m looking at you, Dickens), but long novels done right provide us an opportunity to envelope ourselves in another world for an extended period, allowing us not only to connect with the plot and characters in a potentially deeper way, but to force us to maintain focus on a complex set of intertwined ideas for a long time – always a valuable enterprise in my estimation.

Each novel is accompanied by a warning (my attempt to honestly appraise the concerns people often have about books like these) and a payoff (basically my pitch for each of the works). I can recommend these eleven from personal experience. For my purposes, I’m defining “long” as 500 or more pages. All page counts come from the books’ Amazon pages. They are in no particular order.

The Brothers Karamazov – Fyodor Dostoevsky

The Warning – Russian is notoriously hard to translate into English, and despite Richard Pevear’s and Larissa Volokhonsky (we need more translating team couples) award-winning collaboration, the dialogue and descriptions can sound clunky in spots.

The Payoff – Dostoevsky is famous for his astute psychological profiles, and TBK has them in spades, from young Alyosha (the believer) to Ivan (the skeptic) to Dmitri (the sensualist), Dostoevsky imbues his characters with often painfully recognizable flaws and then sets them in motion, playing out a family tragedy that evolves into a wrenching murder mystery and courtroom drama.

Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace

The Warning – At nearly 1100 pages, IJ is the longest book on this list, and it’s probably the most dense. I had to read it with a (sometimes insufficient) dictionary next to my bed. Also, it’s peppered with these endnotes that necessitate two bookmarks: one for the actual page you’re on and one for the endnotes (of which there are nearly 400). Oh, and an at least cursory knowledge of Hamlet will help. I know this sounds miserable, but…

The Payoff – … Infinite Jest is perhaps the most fully realized, empathetic, challenging, moral, inspiring novel I’ve ever read. The two primary protagonists (Hal Incandenza and Don Gately) are vast reservoirs of insecurity and insight into the human (and often especially the male) condition. It will be hard work, but it will be completely worth it.

2666 – Roberto Bolaño

The Warning – 2666’s grisly exposition and fragmented narrative might turn your stomach. One long section of the novel is essentially a laundry list of the women’s bodies found in the desert near Ciudad Juarez and the horrific crimes visited upon them.

The Payoff – The above grim section is not without purpose. The book is partly an indictment of our attraction and desensitization to atrocity, particularly when it’s aimed at women. Murders like the ones Bolaño describes actually occurred, and when he looks around, culpability is all he sees. A few weeks’ rumination on the themes Bolaño plumbs might keep you up at night, but it’ll also put the voices of the victimized in your head, and one less blind eye is always a good thing.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle – Haruki Murakami

The Warning – The adjective I encounter most often when reading about Murakami is “dream-like.” This isn’t really by accident, since it’s hard to tell sometimes whether or not the events he describes in his works are really happening. That can be frustrating for readers looking for more conventional narrative structures and recognizable plots.

The Payoff – Reading Murakami is like doing a huge jigsaw puzzle, and while there are moments when madness threatens to take you over because the pieces seem not to connect, the satisfaction of completing the puzzle makes it all worth it. On a probably unrelated note, if Wes Anderson were a Japanese novelist instead of an American filmmaker, I think he’d be Haruki Murakami.

East of Eden – John Steinbeck

The Warning – This will become your favorite novel. You’ll start to see biblical symbolism everywhere and develop an imbalanced aversion to anyone named Kate. But seriously, of all the books on here, East of Eden will probably intimidate you the least. Yes, it spans generations and gets a little philosophical in spots, but let’s be honest, you wouldn’t be reading this post at all if that kind of thing didn’t get you at least a little jazzed up.

The Payoff – I wasn’t joking about this becoming your favorite novel. Steinbeck’s capacity for illuminating our raw humanity may be unmatched in American literature, and East of Eden is chock-full of raw humans. Few novels have ever captured the fullness of our struggle for acceptance, from each other and from the titans of our lives.

What is the What – Dave Eggers

The Warning – If you generally feel good about Western foreign policy and want to keep it that way, don’t read this book. Eggers’ dramatized autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng reveals the stunning cruelties of Sudan’s decades long civil war and Deng’s journey across that ravaged country with the “Lost Boys,” a troupe of refugee’s who walked the breadth of their country seeking aid. I’ve only cried reading a few books, and this one cuts deeply.

The Payoff – First, this serves as a pretty outstanding primer on the whole Darfur situation (as it’s known by liberal white people all across America). Second, Eggers’ telling of Valentino’s story is as beautiful as it is heartbreaking, and he masterfully balances the pain and near-despair of the tale with the Deng’s sometimes unbelievable hope and optimism about America, his future, and the realities of his past.

Light in August – William Faulkner

The Warning – Faulkner is notoriously difficult. In fact, besides James Joyce (you’ll notice Ulysses is mercifully absent from this list), I think Bill here is one of the least reader-friendly authors I’ve encountered. Perspectives shift and action is sometimes communicated almost as much by imagistic poetry as by conventional subject-verb-object prose.

The Payoff – A gut-punch of a novel about race, perseverance, sacrifice, power, and grace. Despite Faulkner’s trickiness, Light in August is definitely the most accessible of his “Big Four” – As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury, and Absalom, Absalom! round out the list. You’re engaging with one of the true revolutionaries of American letters here, and after Light in August, you’ll not only understand what all the fuss is about, but you’ll be better equipped to dive into his other seminal works.

The Corrections – Jonathan Franzen

The Warning – If you’ve ever heard Franzen speak (he seems never to turn down the opportunity), you’ve probably wondered what crawled up the posterior of this particular savior of American literature and promptly kicked it. The guy is pretentious and egoistic and some of that sensibility leaks into his fiction, and he gives off the vibe that these characters are really just thinly veiled proxies for his own limitless, snide opinions.

The Payoff – The Corrections suffers from Franzen’s real-life obnoxiousness far less frequently than his other works (most notably 2010’s much lauded Freedom), and the result is often pretty staggering. The novel follows the various dissolutions of a mid-western family, alternately employing deft, jabbing satire and frightening portraits of human failure to expose each member’s cracking shell for what it is. Imagine contemporary Dostoevsky but without the rigid morality.

The Blind Assassin – Margaret Atwood

The Warning – Shifting styles and perspectives again. Vignettes from the 30s and 40s, excerpts from a science-fiction novel-within-the-novel, and scenes from contemporary Canada all fold together in a sometimes throttling mixture. Again, reading a book like this can leave readers who like linear structures feeling a little cold. I can only promise you that she knows where she’s going, and that each of the novel’s mysteries-wrapped-in-enigmas come to light.

The Payoff – Margaret Atwood is plenty well known, but not well enough. This should be your introduction into the oeuvre of the English language’s greatest living author (well, it’s her or Cormac McCarthy). Of the authors whose books feature on this list, only Wallace and Steinbeck consistently impress me with their prose as often as Atwood does. No novel I’ve read recently pulls so convincingly at the tenuous threads of age and identity that we’re often too afraid to bother with.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay – Michael Chabon

The Warning – It really helps if you’re at least a little bit of a comic book nerd. It’s not essential, by any means, but it flattens the learning curve and makes the book a whole lot more revealing. All that aside, Kavalier & Clay takes a lot of twists and turns, and they’re not very often the twists and turns you’re rooting for, so it takes some patience and understanding to deal with the story you’re told, not the one you want.

The Payoff – Perhaps one of the most convincingly rendered novels I’ve ever read in terms of tone, place, and Pathos. Chabon dives into the fears and dreams of two men who are simultaneously in the right and wrong places at the right and wrong times, economically, culturally, and romantically to offer us profound insight into all the ways in which we think the things that will satisfy us ultimately don’t.

P.S. – In my daily perusal of book-related internet items, I came across this eloquent explanation on why no one should be afraid to read Middlemarch. An appropriate addition to this post, I’d say.

P.P.S. – For more on literature from TTAF, take a look at my essay on why men need literature in the first place.

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36 Comments on “Eleven (Really) Long Novels Worth Your While”

  1. May 18, 2012 at 3:59 pm #

    Curious as to why Ulysses is “mercifully” left off the list. By mentioning it and not including it you seem to be relegating it to the category of “not worth your time.”

    • joshacorman
      May 18, 2012 at 8:07 pm #

      I was half-joking about Ulysses. I’m actually going through it now with Frank Delaney’s excellent Re: Joyce podcast, but couldn’t imagine reading it without extensive aid because of it’s density. Ulysses is a titanic work, but not one I’d recommend to just read. To do it justice requires so much work beyond the text.

  2. Matt
    May 19, 2012 at 2:00 pm #

    I only count ten books. Did one get forgotten?

  3. Gabrielle
    June 1, 2012 at 11:23 am #

    I just saw Jonathan Franzen speak a few months ago and thought he was actually super sweet and humble… but if you think he’s pretentious, he sure has a right to be. 🙂

    • joshacorman
      June 1, 2012 at 12:42 pm #

      In all honesty, I doubt Franzen is as pretentious as he seems in many of his interviews and nonfiction (he probably couldn’t be). Obviously, saying that sort of thing about such a skilled and wildly successful literary novelist looks petty, but as I’ve never met the guy, I can only go by how he (deliberately, I think) presents himself.

      • Gabrielle
        June 1, 2012 at 2:17 pm #

        Yeah, I understand. It could all be a bunch of different facades. But when he signed my book, I tried complimenting him and he was very gracious and bashful, to tell the truth. I thought it was sweet. Who knows what he’s really like, though.

      • joshacorman
        June 1, 2012 at 2:30 pm #

        Thanks for the insight! I don’t know if Franzen will come near enough to Central Kentucky for me to get the opportunity to hear him speak, but I would definitely attend a signing. Hopefully my envy wouldn’t be too readily apparent.

      • June 1, 2012 at 4:07 pm #

        I’m going to combine a couple of replies together, get ready!

        1) I live in Lexington. Go central Kentucky!

        2) I completely think you can read Ulysses without secondary literature or other guides. It took me a couple of tries to finally get through it but I enjoyed it far more without the tediousness of working with other books. Sure, some episodes (like “Oxen in the Sun”) are nearly impossible to understand without extensive footnotes to the text but at that point I just appreciated the language and the style Joyce was using. The second time I read the book was even better. I’m not a lit major or an expert in literature at all and I read Ulysses. Anybody can.

        3) One day I watched an interview with David Foster Wallace and a talk by Jonathan Franzen. One was humble and modest and the other was a pretentiousness douche. One I would have gladly had dinner with to talk about literature, pop culture, life. The other I would not.

      • curtisrrogers
        June 1, 2012 at 4:29 pm #

        Thanks for reading the site. We do a post every Sunday night consisting of some type of speech, ted talk etc and this Sunday we will have a speech from David Foster Wallace. It is incredible and I highly recommend reading it on Sunday night.

      • joshacorman
        June 1, 2012 at 4:54 pm #

        Jason:

        1. Agreed.

        2. You can read Ulysses unadorned, but you can’t appreciate its total effect (or even get close to Joyce’s vision for his readers) without something to offset the wide gulf created as much by its incredibly specific context as by the challenges of the prose. Coding every word and really reading, I would contend, are two different things.

        3. I’m not sure which is which here. If your structure is parallel, then Franzen is a douche. If not, then we’re just going to have to agree to disagree.

        Thanks

        Corman

      • curtisrrogers
        June 1, 2012 at 5:00 pm #

        I feel like I could slap Josh’s son Benjamin and then burn a copy of Infinite Jest and he would be more upset about the latter. I am only slightly joking.

      • curtisrrogers
        June 1, 2012 at 9:28 pm #

        which is to say be careful in any criticism of David Foster Wallace, Josh will hurt someone.

      • June 1, 2012 at 11:12 pm #

        Wallace is the nice one. And regarding Ulysses, I think to do it justice it needs to be read more than once. And on the first read it shouldn’t be with other people’s thoughts on the book. That’s just my opinion and how I approached the novel. To me it was like a puzzle and I don’t like to do a crossword puzzle with the answers right next to me. It doesn’t feel like a challenge that way. I didn’t get even close to all of the intricacies of the novel but I was able to follow the plot and appreciate everything Joyce put into it. At least enough to garner a reread. Everybody has their own methods for reading though and there is no one way better than another. As long as you enjoy it! I hope you are enjoying reading Ulysses, its really wonderful!

      • joshacorman
        June 2, 2012 at 8:32 am #

        I am (slowly) reading Ulysses. My process thus far has worked: read a section sans any aid, then re-read that same section (before continuing) with Frank Delaney’s Re:Joyce Podcast (EXCELLENT) and annotating the book with a nice sharp pencil. Delaney’s podcast is great, and the more I listen to his exploration of the text, the better I think I’m getting picking up on some of Joyce’s patterns. I plan on giving the fully annotated copy to my son some day. Hopefully he doesn’t punch me for it.

        Thanks again for your great feedback!

  4. June 1, 2012 at 2:26 pm #

    No Rand? I don’t even want to get into debating Fountainhead vs. Atlas Shrugged (AS clearly!), but surely one of those should be on there?

    Personally, Proust is my insanely long white whale. I’ve read it once, but it was such slow going I don’t even think it counts. One day…

    • joshacorman
      June 1, 2012 at 2:33 pm #

      I’ll confess to having never read any Rand besides the decidedly short ANTHEM, but I’m not much a fan of objectivism as a philosophy. As for Proust, I have SWANN’S WAY sitting on my shelf. It taunts me daily.

  5. June 17, 2012 at 4:14 am #

    Loved this post! I think out of your list you’ve made Infinite Jest sound most tempting. I appreciate the link to the Middlemarch project – I read the book a few years ago and it became one of my favourite novels, I really enjoyed it.

    I hadn’t heard of the Re Joyce podcasts people are mentioning above. I must check those out when I finally decide to tackle the book (I live in Glasgow so I always have the notion that I’ll read it then nip over to Dublin to see the places for myself).

    • joshacorman
      June 17, 2012 at 12:24 pm #

      Maybe a good goal would be to read through ULYSSES with the ReJoyce podcast and make it to Dublin for Bloomsday (only 364 days away!). I’d love that chance. Thanks for reading!

  6. March 22, 2013 at 3:42 am #

    I had been wondering if your hosting is OK? Not that I am complaining, but sluggish loading instances times will sometimes affect your placement in google and could damage your quality score if advertising and marketing with Adwords.

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