In the era of binge-watching and online plot summaries, getting your teeth into a big, meaty novel can feel like a lost art. You could just watch the movie or listen to the audiobook, and rifling through a 1000-pager in your downtime can feel a bit like showing off.
But whether it’s the language, the detail, or simply the depth of narrative, some of our greatest writers have told some of our longest tales. If you’re stuck on what to read next, here are 10 big books to curl up with now you have the time.
1. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
Could we start anywhere else? Tolstoy’s sprawling epic remains the poster child for long works of literature, and chronicles the lives of Russian aristocrats in the time of the Napoleonic Wars. Initially published serially, the book contains nearly as much philosophy as narrative, and Tolstoy himself was reticent to call it a novel.
The key question for such colossal tomes is whether they justify the time required to read them, and this searing tale of love and loss vindicates every word. Whatever edition you’re reading, the page count will exceed quadruple digits, usually with very small print.
2. 1Q84, Haruki Murakami
First published in three separate volumes, 1Q84 is an extremely difficult story to categorise. Equal parts romance, mystery, and exercise in surrealism, the whole is a numerical dystopia to rival that of George Orwell, in which a young woman slowly realises that the world around her is not as it seems.
We could happily spend a lifetime in Haruki Murakami’s imagination. We can certainly manage 928 pages.
3. The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt
Donna Tartt readers seem to be divided into two camps: ‘Couldn’t get into it’ and ‘changed my life’. Following the fate of Theodore Decker, a 13-year-old boy who loses his mother to a terrorist bombing at an art gallery, The Goldfinch wowed reviewers, readers, and the judges for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize. The critically panned 2019 film is not – we repeat, not – a substitute.
Tartt’s other magnum opus, The Secret History, could just as easily have snapped up this spot. It’s just not quite as long.
4. Middlemarch, George Eliot
In the United States, literature professors obsess over the concept of ‘the great American novel’, and George Eliot’s Middlemarch could reasonably claim to be the UK equivalent. A weighty tome hailing from 19th century rural England, the book opines on marriage, womanhood and political reform, against a four-year backdrop including the 1832 Reform Act and the ascension of King William IV.
At nearly 900 pages, Eliot has plenty of time for a forensic dissection of provincial life, and the hypocrisies and eccentricities found therein.
5. Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Global in scope yet intimate in tone, Adichie’s magnum opus is about as magnum as can be. Worthwhile for the sociology as much as the spellbinding story, Americanah explores race, gender and migration via Nigeria and the United States, and shines a sceptical spotlight on the American Dream.
Not many books have meant so much to so many as Americanah, and an HBO adaptation starring Lupita Nyong’o is slated for release later this year.
6. Les Miserables, Victor Hugo
As seen on stage and screen, the original Les Miserables is a seminal work of 19th century fiction, and a passionate call to arms against the injustices of the world. The story charmed nearly as many of its original French readers as it has modern movie-goers, though it was savaged by critics for its sentimentality and outlawed by the Catholic Church.
There’s a surprising surfeit of imposing 19th century French literature, telling tales of derring-do that have solidified themselves in popular culture. See the Count of Monte Cristo, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, the Three Musketeers.
7. Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
Scourge of secondary school students everywhere, this Victorian morality tale has probably inspired more visits to SparkNotes than any other work. Dickens at his most Dickensian, Great Expectations paints brutal poverty and hardship with elegance, empathy and humour, thanks to a colourful cast of characters including plucky protagonist Pip and eccentric spinster Miss Havisham.
Adapted into everything from a South Park episode to a Christmas panto, the story is easily iconic enough to warrant its considerable run-time.
8. Ulysses, James Joyce
Be honest: have you ever genuinely considered reading Ulysses? The 730 pages are intimidating enough on their own, but the book’s monstrous reputation rests mostly on what they contain. Riven with classical allusions, intellectual experimentation, and psycho-sexual blasphemies, every painstaking paragraph has spawned a doctoral thesis, and thousands of defeated readers.
When he finished writing Ulysses, Joyce was reportedly so exhausted that he didn’t write another word of prose for a year, so if you don’t read it now you never will. We know, you probably never will.
9. The Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien
You’ve probably seen the films – or at very least, the prequels – but in print the saga of Frodo and the ring possesses a richness that rarely translates onto the screen. An extraordinary piece of world-building, Middle Earth is described with a depth and detail unusual in any medium, and Tolkien wrote entire new languages simply to flesh out the lore.
For extra points try picking up the Silmarillion, a deep dive into the Tolkien mythos so notoriously dense that even ardent fans struggle to wade through it.
10. A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth
One of the longest single volume books ever published in the English language, this 591,552-word odyssey by Vikram Seth offers an earnest assessment of post-partition India, through the eyes of four families across a period of 18 months.
The book was a smash hit with readers and critics, but was controversially left off the Booker Prize shortlist. Read to the end and judge for yourself.
What are you currently reading? Have you read any on this list?
– With PA
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