The other day my son asked me out of the blue, in the way of first graders everywhere, “What’s the longest book?” This made me smile, because it’s the sort of question that’s right in my wheelhouse. It’s about reading, it regards an essentially useless piece of information, and there’s no one right answer. I launched into what he didn’t realize was going to be a tedious reply: “It’s hard to say. There’s this book called Clarissa …”
He cut me off. “I thought it was a book about dunking doughnuts.” Huh? My impromptu lecture fell out of my head.
“Where’d you hear that?”
“You told me once.”
Several beats went by before it came to me. “Oh, right. In French. It’s called À la recherche du temps perdu …”
I swear, I don’t spend hours inculcating him with this stuff. I think I mentioned the madeleine thing back in 2009. A guy dips a piece of cake in his tea and the taste inspires a flood of recollection. Next thing you know, he’s written a 1.5 million-word novel that has to be published in seven volumes. Almost a hundred years later, a dad decides to talk Proust with his four-year-old, and the conversation gets coughed back up in altered form two years later. Memory is a funny thing.
Long books are funny things too. It obviously takes more time to read a thousand-page book than a regular-size one, but that’s not the only difference. Every story has an optimum pace and needs a certain amount of breathing room to be properly told—my anecdote above was probably too padded, for example, and might have worked better as a Facebook post or even a tweet. Reading a gargantuan volume isn’t like dashing down a corridor to get to an office, it’s like wandering through a mansion and taking the time to look at all the furnishings that fill out the corners of the plot. Sometimes creating a character involves explaining how his mother was the first one in the family to go to college, and how her father learned a new language when he emigrated at the age of forty, and how his grandmother was a noblewoman who had a hundred servants. Which is why big fat books are often more approachable than skinny ones—they’re like soap operas.
Clarissa, which I mentioned before, is a perfect case study. At well over a million words, it’s considered the longest English-language novel, and it uses letters back and forth between its characters to tell the story of the virtuous Clarissa Harlowe, forced into marriage with the wicked but attractive Robert Lovelace. It’s the book that launched the armada of romance novels that continues to be produced today. Written in 1748, some back then praised it for its moral vision while others called it scandalous pornography. Now the only shocking thing about it is how misogynistic the eighteenth century was.
A more modern classic in this vein is Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy. It’s a love story set in newly-independent India and it relates the experiences of four extended families coping with their changing society, centered on Mrs. Rupa Mehra’s attempts to arrange a marriage for her strong-minded youngest daughter. The paperback is almost 1500 pages long, which allows space for disquisitions on ragas, elections, caste problems, cricket, land reform, and other issues that are part of the Indian panorama, but it’s all done with a light, entertaining touch. At heart, it’s a warm look at a group of people you don’t mind spending a lot of time with, and you might actually wish it longer than it is. In which case you’re in luck—Seth is reportedly working on a sequel, A Suitable Girl, to be released in 2013.
In talking about giant novels, I can’t fail to mention War and Peace, the epic tale of Russia during the Napoleonic wars, sort of the granddaddy of all doorstops. From battlegrounds to ballrooms, Tolstoy covered it all, or almost. Legend has it that that he woke up in the middle of the night before publication crying out, “I forgot to put in a yacht race!” He worked and reworked his manuscript for years before it was done, his wife recopying his illegible scrawl each time until she’d handwritten the entire book seven times over. Theirs was not the happiest marriage, history tells us, and her cramped fingers might have been a factor. The results were worth it for readers, though. There’s probably not a more immersive experience in fiction than living in Tolstoy’s world for a while.