With summer approaching and some ‘social distancing’ likely to be required even if quarantine is lifted, for those of us with cancelled work and projects, the extra time offers a good opportunity to relish those long books that may have been sitting on the shelves or on a wish-list for a while. If you have often thought, ‘I’d love to read War and Peace one day,’ I would encourage you to dive right in. If your preference is usually for novellas though, the thought of wading through 500-plus pages and having it feel like a slog is off-putting. To help, I have put together a list of my favourite 10 long books to read on lockdown – adding tips and hints that have helped me enjoy these epic stories.
My 10 long books to read on lockdown:
- Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace (1,392 pages)
- Alexandre Dumas, Count of Monte Cristo (1,276 pages)
- Alan Moore, Jerusalem (1,266 pages) *
- J. R. R. Tolkein, The Lord of the Rings (1,216 pages)
- Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (1,006 pages)
- Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (964 pages)
- Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (882 pages)
- Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate (864 pages)
- Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment (671 pages)
- Haruki Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (607 pages)
* A confession: I am still on Book One of Jerusalem. But it’s so good so far that I had to include it here!
Serialisation is your friend
One of the reasons that the writers of classics could bang out more than 1,000 pages without seemingly breaking a sweat is that they weren’t doing it all at once. The Count of Monte Cristo, Crime and Punishment, Anna Karenina and all of Dickens’ novels were first published and enjoyed by readers in serial form. That means that there are useful pause points along the way: perfect to stop and take a breather. The first book of Jerusalem is structured like a series of connected short stories, while The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell are both split into three books each. You could easily fit in a short story as you went along to provide a change of focus.
A cast of thousands
Any long novel will feature quite a few characters, probably a couple of major families and perhaps a number of different locations. Anna Karenina focuses on the society around Anna, her brother, his family and his friend Levin. Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate tells the story of the Battle of Stalingrad by keeping another family at the centre of the tale, but including their friends, significant others both past and present, children and colleagues. Here an e-reader comes into its own as it is easy to highlight a name and look it up when you aren’t quite sure where you last met someone, the electronic way of keeping a finger or a bookmark in the list of characters that often appears at the front of the book. A long book is like a city, where some people flash by in an instant and others stick around for a while.
The first (few) chapter(s) is (are) the toughest
It is easy to feel disorientated and wonder if you will ever be able to keep track of who all these darned people are. Your main character may not even have shown up. The War may not have started yet. A cat might be lost. There may be a birthday party with bitchy family members and no wizards. It can all feel a bit not what you signed up for, but allow it to roll along and pull you in. The only option is to go with it and trust that all will become clearer (it usually does!) Give it at least three chapters before deciding it’s not for you.
While it is a myth that Dickens was paid by the word, it can certainly feel that way at times! Similarly, you can pick up a book expecting thwarted romance and tragedy and get lengthy paragraphs on agricultural reforms in Tsarist Russia. It’s your choice whether to flip past to get back to the ‘action’ or enjoy it as part of the journey (I usually read it the first time and skip by on re-reads.)
Enjoy the ride
Tolkien invented languages, Tolstoy visited battlefields, Clarke created an entire fictional history of English magic. The world-building that is possible within these epic reads is absorbing and must be what keeps readers coming back to them generation after generation. Sometimes it pays to have no distractions – I zipped through the Count of Monte Cristo in pre-social media days over one summer when my TV had blown up (it really did!) – but when the world and the news is full of distractions, sometimes it helps to slip away into the past or Middle Earth or a well behind an abandoned house in Japan.
Let me know in the comments if you have read any of my 10 long books to read on lockdown – and what you thought of them – or if you are planning to read any other long books this summer.