These are five books that have their unusual size in common: all are a thousand pages or more. Don’t let that scare you away, though: let me try to convince you that these are worth picking up for reasons other than strengthening your biceps.
By Samuel Richardson
I know, I know—you’ve probably heard that “nothing happens” in Clarissa; you might think that the synopsis on the back cover of the Penguin edition sums up the entire plot. But it’s deeper and more complex than you might have heard, with more virtues than I can list here. It contains a detour into a kind of speculative fiction, in which a society is depicted where all marriage contracts are only valid for a year and must be annually renegotiated. There is a discussion that still seems controversial today of whether victims of rape are morally obligated to report the crime to the authorities, despite the further psychological trauma that the subsequent trial might cause for the victim. And Clarissa’s dear friend Anna Howe is one of the most entertaining characters you will come across in all of English fiction.
Give the novel a try. Reading two or three chapters a day is enough to keep up with it without losing track of its narrative. Don’t hurry through it like you need to write a paper on it (which is unfortunately how it’s most often encountered).
The Mysteries of Paris
By Eugène Süe
Newly translated into English just this past year, The Mysteries of Paris provides a comprehensive tour of the city in the mid-19th century, visiting citizens both rich and poor: it’s a fascinating mix of seamy depictions of criminal behavior, grotesque descriptions of the horrors of poverty, intrigue among the nobility, and heaping dollops of socialist propaganda. Occasionally Sue will interject in a footnote to apologize for the novel’s inordinate length or the artlessness of his style, but it’s a false humility—he knows he is crafting a work that’s eminently readable, and during its original publication in 1843 his audience was happily strung along for 167 serialized chapters..
Joseph and His Brothers
By Thomas Mann
It requires a lot of nerve to take a story that’s competently and quickly told in the Book of Genesis, blow it up to nearly 1,500 pages, and expect someone to read it, but Thomas Mann’s four-part novel Joseph and His Brothers pays for its length. It’s funny, funnier than you might expect a Bible story to be; it’s got spectacular characterization (each of the twelve sons of Jacob is distinguishable from the others); and its depiction of the Ancient Near East is realized in an incredible degree of detail. (The John E. Woods English translation is likely to be more pleasing to modern ears than the earlier one by Helen Lowe-Porter.)
What It Takes
By Richard Ben Cramer
Richard Ben Cramer’s recounting of the 1988 presidential election is one of the best books about American politics ever written, if not the best: he focuses on Republican candidates George H. W. Bush and Bob Dole, and Democratic candidates Michael Dukakis, Gary Hart, Joe Biden, and Dick Gephardt, following them through the primaries and into the general election. (Given how well he writes about these candidates, one might wish he’d found a way to pay more attention to Jesse Jackson’s insurgent campaign that year—it’s the book’s only real flaw, one which Cramer expresses regret for in his author’s note.) Cramer’s gonzo journalist style is a pleasure to read, and in his retelling of the scandal that brought down Gary Hart, we can see the beginning of the change in political journalism that brought us to a period of a 24/7 news cycle that blurs the line between reportage and entertainment, one in which the press becomes the story, and therefore often manufactures the story it wants to tell. If you want to see how Donald Trump ended up on your television, start here..
The Brunist Day of Wrath
By Robert Coover
Nearly fifty years after the publication of his first novel, The Origin of the Brunists, Robert Coover revisits the setting of that book: the small town of West Condon, home of an off-brand Christian fundamentalist cult founded in the wake of a tragic coal mine accident. Coover largely stays away from postmodernism here in favor of more straight-ahead storytelling, but over the course of his long career his prose style changes significantly: his sentences become longer and more musical, each one carefully crafted. Read The Origin of the Brunists (which is also a great novel) and The Brunist Day of Wrath back to back if you can: though they take place only five years apart, the contrast between the books is often surprising.