There has been much discussion over the years as to whether Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick is The Great American Novel, simply A Great American Novel, or is just a lengthy collection of complaints about whales (not that many people admit to thinking the latter). But if you’ve been meaning to read it for years and have never quite gotten up the nerve (or the time), an awesome marathon reading begins tonight at WORD in Greenpoint, which also happens to be one of our very favorite bookstores. To celebrate the event, we’ve put together a list of notorious literary slogs — long, difficult, and/or complicated enough to scare even the strongest reader — that are definitely worth the effort. Read our list after the jump, and add on your own favorites in the comments!
Moby-Dick , Herman Melville
Melville’s classic is many people’s literary white whale – but come on, you have to read the book that spawned the metaphor you use to describe it. Sure, it’s long, and there are large passages packed with mind-numbing information about the nitty-gritty of whaling techniques, but it’s also quite funny, something we no one told us before we took the plunge. It’s an adventure story, it’s a horror story, it’s a strange romance — and it’s time. If you can’t make it to the event tonight, no excuses: there’s always Moby-Dick Big Read.
Infinite Jest , David Foster Wallace
We know what you’ve heard: it’s long, there’s no comprehensible plot, and there’s a hank of footnotes at the back that would make up a serious length of novel themselves. Well, you’re mostly right — except about the plot thing, that is. Infinite Jest is one of the most phenomenal books we’ve ever read: bizarre, playful, deeply twisted, and packing in an absurd amount of emotional heft for what many see as just an aspirational notch on their post-modern belt. Take three months and read this one right, and you won’t be sorry.
J R , William Gaddis
What’s that you say? An 725+ page novel written entirely in dialogue? With the barest sprinkling of indication as to who is talking, ever? Yes, that’s what we say. Like Moby-Dick, once you get past the form, this behemoth is hilarious, poignant, and essential. Unlike Moby-Dick, it contains one of the best sex scenes we’ve ever read.
Ulysses , James Joyce
Joyce’s masterpiece is one of those books that a lot of people say they’ve read, but not that many actually have. Sure, it’s another doorstop, but it’s also quite strange to read, alternating between forms, making allusions the modern reader may or may not appreciate, experimenting with prose. Then again, don’t you want to read the scene that Vladimir Nabokov, notoriously stingy with his praise, called “one of the greatest passages in all literature”? Hint: it’s the one where Bloom brings Molly breakfast. You’ll have to get through Part I first, and we bet by then, you’ll be hooked.
Clarissa, Samuel Richardson
This book has two things against it, slog-wise: it was written in 1747, with everything that entails, and it’s quite possibly the longest novel in the English language, clocking in at over 1500 pages (and a million words) in one volume. It’s also an epistolary novel, which might fall to one side or the other, depending on your temperament. But you guys, it’s worth it — if you like heart-rending tragedies and romances filled with virtuous women and unrepentant rakes, or if you like being tied up completely in the crazed, ravaged minds of characters. Which we do.
Mason & Dixon , Thomas Pynchon
Another post-modern standby, it’s not only large, but a historical novel told in 18th-century dialect, which has turned more than one potential reader we know off course. Hold the line! This novel is absurd, complicated, extravagant and unwaveringly entertaining, even if you’ve never read a book about American history in your life, filled with rollicking misadventures, an odd couple for the ages, and a mechanical — no, magic — duck. That’s right.
Blood Meridian , Cormac McCarthy
It’s not the length of this novel that keeps some people pushing it to the bottom of their to-read pile, but rather the sheer, unrelenting bleak-and-bloody of it. We don’t have much to say to you on that score — it’s bleak, and it’s bloody, and it stays that way all the way through, with very little let up. That said, even if descriptions of scalping are not your thing, the book is worth reading for McCarthy’s masterful use of language, his perfect, terrifyingly evocative sentences that leave you feeling the dust in your mouth. Then again, if descriptions of scalping are your thing, boy do we have the book for you.
Remembrance of Things Past , Marcel Proust
Now this, folks, is in fact the longest novel in the world, at about 1.5 million words. Then there’s the prose, notoriously difficult and long-winded, a seemingly endless collection of memories stacked one after the other, and of course — written in French. But how will you ever notice your involuntary memories if you don’t read Proust? It’s okay, you don’t have to read past Swann’s Way.
Tale of Genji , Murasaki Shikibu
This one may be kind of specific to us, since we have a particular penchant for Japanese literature, but hear us out. It’s long, it’s old, it’s totally archaic, and no one uses anyone’s name, but it’s also an epic story written to be entertaining, and is an early psychological novel that succeeds at the form better than many since. Indeed, the Japanese novelist Yasunari Kawabata praised the book in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, telling the audience that the book “is the highest pinnacle of Japanese literature. Even down to our day there has not been a piece of fiction to compare with it.” Sounds well worth a read to us.
The Faerie Queene , Edmund Spenser
Ah, allegorical epic poetry. It can be tough. But in case you didn’t have to read this one in college, allow us to heartily recommend it to you now. Blending history, magic, Arthurian legend, the Italian epic tradition, and the Spenser’s own weirdness, it’s a mythic triumph that is actually quite fun to read. If you like awesome adventures, that is.