by Colleen White
You see them on the subway, poking ungracefully out of the top of someone’s backpack. At the end of the shelf, propping up the heap of novels. Under the wobbly leg of the dining room table. They’re the tomes, the paving stones, the books so large, they make you wonder who could possibly have written so much and why on God’s green Earth would anyone want to read them?
The truth is, “big books” get a bad rap.
They’re seen as unnecessarily long, plodding, intimidating to start, and frankly, too heavy for sensible transport. And sometimes, these are fair criticism. But sometimes those extra pages allow an author dive into the story, weaving a world or building characters that seem to live outside the confines of the covers.
So with at least a few months of winter left, we think the cold weather and dreary days offer the perfect excuse to tackle one of these hefty volumes.
1. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon
This joyful, clever novel follows the adventures of two cousins living in New York in the heady pre-war days of 1939. Sammy, a quick-witted story weaver, and Josef, a moody, Prague-born artist team up to try to earn some quick-cash-in the early boom of comic books. While the story weaves through different times and continents, and comic book characters, Sammy and Josef are the true heroes of the story; their relationship is the beating heart of this novel.
2. Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy
Anna Karenina is worth the fuss. In fact, it almost seems silly to include a book like this on this list, given how it is both famously popular and famously long. But some books deserve all the hype, and 100 years on, Anna Karenina is still just about perfect. Come for the lavish descriptions of a doomed socialite and a dying way of life, stay for the existential questions on political structure, family life, morality, and social class.
3. The Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett
Ken Follett is no stranger to long-ass books, but The Pillars of the Earth stands apart as a masterpiece. Set in 1100’s England, The Pillars of the Earth tells the story of a cathedral and the men and women who build it. This simple idea lets Follett build out the entire world and immerses the reader of what life in the Middle Ages would be like. Better still, no one writes plot-driven drama better than Follett. With just a hint of pulp, this plot races ahead, making the 800+ pages fly by. And if you still need convincing, consider this: the book is so popular, it has been adapted into THREE separate board games.
4. The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien
1,178 pages total
Remember what I said earlier about world building? This is what I (and everyone else for the past 60 years) was talking about. Tolkein didn’t just tell weave a plot and characters, he created backstories and histories for the great-great-grandfathers of those characters. He made legends and myths, languages and songs, ruined civilizations and famous former kings for those characters. There’s a reason nerdy kids in high school set about tryint to learn Elvish; Tolkein’s writing doesn’t feel like a creation but rather a re-telling of history. It feels real. Thanks to the movies, most people know the plot, but for the reasons above, it’s worth the read.
5. The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton
Catton’s sprawling murder mystery not only won the Man Booker prize, but it holds the record as the longest book to win the award. Set in 1866 in a New Zealand town seized by the gold rush, Catton lets the book unfold by following an astrological pattern as it works to unwind the mysteries. The less you know going into the reading, the better.
6. Middlemarch, by George Eliot
The ultimate small-town novel, Middlemarch focuses on the lives of residents of the fictitious town of, you guessed it, Middlemarch, England in the 1830s. There are four main plots that carry the story, and they focus on the very Georgian themes of courtship, career, social advancement and social disgrace. Eliot, which was the penname for Mary Ann Evans, captures the quiet tragedy of this small, isolated community, making Middlemarch one of the most celebrated works of realism.
7. A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth
Some big books on this list use their length to cover multiple decades or generations; Seth uses his thousand pages to cover 18 months. To be fair, the plot follows four families in India as they interweave as matchmakers, fiancées, and “suitable” suitors. For those who use long novels to escape into a new world, A Suitable Boy offers a look at post-Independence India, a time of incredible optimism, strife, and tremendous social change.
8. A Brief History of Seven Killings, by Marlon James
Brief, it is not, but James needed over 700 pages to accommodate the 70 voices that tell the story of Jamaica and New York in the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s. Ranging from the Smile Jamaica concert and the assassination of Bob Marley to the crack wars in New York and political gangs across both countries, A Brief History of Seven Killings is as brilliant as it is ambitious.