Big books are the warm bubble baths of the book world, but they’re often talked about as if they’re itchy woolen snowsuits instead. Sinking into a big, dense book should be a pleasure, not a headache-inducing nightmare.
What makes a book big? Size, obviously—let’s say (arbitrarily) 600 pages or more—but also, to a lesser extent, complexity. Although Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows pushes 800 pages (and I loved it dearly), I would hesitate before calling it a big book; it followed too easily the path laid out for it by its six prequels; it tied up too neatly every loose end with an escapist epilogue. But then again, the bigness of big books may lie in the heart of the reader. For me, the really big books are those that intimidate the reader, the ones that feel like a challenge at the start, but a best friend by the finish, the ones that most closely mimic an actual marathon; instead of churning legs over terrain for 26.2 miles, readers of big books sprain their fingers flipping pages and mentally race through page after page to the triumphant end.
As usual, the public reluctance to engage with big books can perhaps be traced back to high school (what problem can’t, really), when a deadline imposed on the reading of a big book like The Grapes of Wrath or The Iliad or Ulysses is a significant threat to getting any other homework done. Students dread large reading assignments, a feeling that usually persists throughout college and beyond.
On the other hand, there are those who see a big book as a challenge to overcome rather than a pleasure. They might read one big book a year, and then talk incessantly about how they read it, leaving out the fact that they haven’t read anything else that year except their Twitter feed. These people may or may not usually be men with scruffy beards who just finished David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King. Avoid conversation with them at all costs.
Here’s a list of some of my personal favorite big books, broken up by genre. What big books would be on your list?
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
Sacajawea by Anna Lee Waldo
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
East of Eden by John Steinbeck
Middlemarch by George Eliot
Daniel Deronda by George Eliot
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Les Misérables by Victor Hugo
Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
These books are all dear to me in their own ways, but they share one thing in common: they contain entire worlds and generation-spanning sagas so richly and completely imagined that they become real, and so real that they become road maps for navigating my own world.
So put a big book in your To Be Read pile–not just because it’s a classic or an award winner, though that’s a good enough reason, too—but because it’s epically, gloriously, luxuriously big. Sink it to it. Let it sweep you away.
Marie is a writer and editor who lives with her feral cat, and, like most people, prefers dance parties to homework.
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