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Arts | Culture

Eight great very long books you finally have time to read

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Book jacket for “Wizard of the Crow” By Ngugi wa Thiong’o
(Anchor)

Certain books are just imposing, with dimensions that call to mind the monolith in “2001: A Space Odyssey” more than your standard-size novel or memoir. Some call them doorstoppers; others ponder whether they could be used to repel intruders. There are more than a few that sit on people’s shelves, unread, as statements of purpose: “Ulysses,” “Infinite Jest,” “Middlemarch.”

If you’re currently under self-quarantine or just embracing social distancing, now might be the time to tackle a book the size of a human head. There are plenty of notable tomes out there, in addition to sizable complete collections of short stories by the likes of J.G. Ballard or Mavis Gallant.

But certain supersized books have the makings of ideal quarantine reading. If this goes on for long enough, you might even have time to tackle more than one. Some of the books below will transport you to another place or another time; others will give you a better sense of your own place in time. They have little in common except for their scale and their hypnotic ability to make you forget your own predicament.

Javier Marías, “Your Face Tomorrow,” 1,242 pages

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The fiction of Spanish author and perennial Nobel favorite Javier Marías blends regally composed sentences with a precise command of plot and tension. His fiction often involves sudden flashes of violence, whether physical or emotional, and frequently grapples with the aftermath of historical tragedies — including the Spanish Civil War. All of those qualities are on display in this three-volume novel, which focuses on an academic who becomes embroiled in the world of espionage, causing him to bear witness to aspects of humanity he might never have imagined.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, “Wizard of the Crow,” 784 pages

From another author on the Nobel-rumor shortlist, this sprawling novel is another fine example of an expansive read that maintains its grip on you throughout. Wa Thiong’o drew upon Kenyan history and politics to create his world, and the juxtaposition of harrowing realism with forays into the mythic infuses some of this book’s most memorable scenes. Whether depicting factional infighting or journeys into the uncanny, “Wizard of the Crow” creates a tone and a setting uniquely its own.

Ron Chernow, “Grant,” 1,104 pages

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It’s not every historical figure who can truly justify a huge biography, but the fascinating, contradictory, often heroic life of Ulysses S. Grant qualifies. Reviewing the book for Slate, David Plotz wrote that the “biography is like Grant’s own Civil War campaigns: a massive accumulation of resources, deployed in an inexorable fashion to overwhelm an immoral opposition.” From thrilling and insightful descriptions of Grant’s impact on the Civil War to a thoughtful exploration of postwar America, Chernow makes the case for Grant as a far better president than he’s reputed to have been — and does so convincingly.

Mervyn Peake, “The Gormenghast Novels,” 1,200 pages

If mid-20th century British fantasy novels were 1960s rock bands, Mervyn Peake’s series would be the Velvet Underground to “The Lord of the Rings’” Beatles or Stones. His trilogy is weirder and riskier, but it also offers some of the same pleasures — notably the thrill of encountering a meticulously detailed world. The first two books teem with palace intrigue and sinister conspiracies, but then Peake pulls off a bravura move that sets all that’s come before into sharp relief. The result is entirely singular, like nothing else out there.

Lucy Ellmann, “Ducks, Newburyport,” 1,040 pages

Many massive novels travel through time or place; Lucy Ellmann’s “Ducks, Newburyport” — winner of the 2019 Goldsmiths Prize, awarded to “fiction that breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form” — is a notable (and memorable) exception. Ellmann doubles down on the quotidian, evoking the risks taken by Modernist writers of the past while telling a story that feels very relevant to Trump-era life. She paints a resonant portrait of the head space of her narrator, conveying a total sense of consciousness. Bonus: you’ll also learn a lot about mountain lions.

Rebecca West, “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon,” 1,232 pages

At once an intricate travelogue, an overview of complex personalities, and a thoughtful consideration of the political tensions leading up to World War II in Europe, West’s “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon” is forever-churning, but never spins its wheels. The narrative — a favorite of writers like Geoff Dyer and Christopher Hitchens — follows West’s travels through what was then Yugoslavia, indelibly capturing people and communities on the verge of erasure or profound change.

Leslie Marmon Silko, “Almanac of the Dead,” 768 pages

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On the simplest level, Silko’s novel follows the lives of a series of disparate characters who intersect in the course of activity both legal and illicit. But “Almanac of the Dead” also offers a deeper consideration of history — specifically the uncomfortable but crucial place of Native American cultures in the history of the United States over hundreds of years. The result is an immersive, experimental work of fiction with a devastating political subtext.

Neal Stephenson, “The Baroque Cycle,” 960 pages

What’s the only thing better than one gigantic book? How about a group of linked books, all of them gigantic, adding up to an even more monumental work — one which gains power through its size. Robert Caro’s multi-volume biography of Lyndon B. Johnson is an example; so is William T. Vollmann’s massive nonfiction work “Carbon Ideologies.” But for readers seeking out both pulpy thrills and a sense of history, there’s little better than Neal Stephenson’s stunning “Baroque Cycle.” The author blends real and historical figures and balances realism with borderline fantasy. To top it all off, he also ties it into at least three of his other books, creating an irresistible multiverse of truly mammoth proportions.

Carroll is the author of the novel “Reel,” the story collection “Transitory” and the nonfiction work “Political Sign.”


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