(Penguin) / (Back Bay Books)

25 Big Novels That Are Worth Your Time


What we love about big novels is that you have to get really comfortable with them. A big page count usually equals a big chunk of time, meaning you need to be a serious reader without a fear of commitment, but with books like Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, and Sergio de la Pava’s A Naked Singularity receiving heaps of praise and major literary awards in 2013, there is a very great chance that this year will probably see its share of great novels that tip the scales at over 500 pages. With that, we offer you this list of epic page turners that you may have missed, skipped, or just couldn’t finish the first time, because we believe that bigger can certainly be better, and these books are proof of that.

In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust (4215 pages)

There are big novels, and then there is In Search of Lost Time. Proust’s massive work is a literary undertaking that feels more like a quest, but those who have made it say there is nothing quite like closing the final volume after the very last page.

Look at Me, Jennifer Egan (544 pages)

Jennifer Egan has never been afraid of getting creative. The big awards she won for A Visit From the Goon Squad prove that. In her second novel, which is just shy of 550 pages, Egan’s surreal tale explores our culture’s obsession with image in the way that only she can.

Conversation in the Cathedral, Mario Vargas Llosa (608 pages)

This is one of the most important books to come out of South America in the 1960s. Llosa would go on to win a Nobel later in his career, but most will tell you this is the Peruvian author’s finest moment.

Middlemarch, George Eliot (880 pages)

If there was ever a time to read Eliot’s classic, 2014 would be the year, thanks in big part to Rebecca Mead’s forthcoming My Life in Middlemarch. But one of the books constantly called one of the greatest of all English novels truly never goes out of style, and is a worthy read anytime.

A Book of Memories, Péter Nádas (720 pages)

If you’re looking for a third party to recommend this one, Susan Sontag called the Hungarian author’s book “[t]he greatest novel written in our time, and one of the great books of the century.” So there’s that.

J R, William Gaddis (752 pages)

In his 1975 National Book Award Winner for Fiction, Gaddis did a brilliant job of turning the American dream inside out. This is the best place to start if you’re ever going to do yourself the favor of getting more into this great writer’s work. Sure, most would tell you The Recognitions is the first stop, but you can tackle those 956 pages after this.

Don Quixote, Miguel De Cervantes (992 pages)

Some people will tell you that Quixote is the novel, and they might not be wrong. Debuting in the 1600s, this Spanish masterpiece is still one of those books you absolutely must read before you can say that you’ve read all of the greatest novels. It’s big, sure, but it would also be one of the top two or three we’d pick off this list if we were stranded on a desert island.

The Making of Americans, Gertrude Stein (926 pages)

It’s Gertrude Stein, sure, but this modernist classic belongs in the same class as its contemporaries by writers like Hemingway and Joyce. Stein’s generation-spanning book is one of the finest family sagas ever put to paper. Don’t let it intimidate you, and you will be rewarded handsomely.

David Copperfield, Charles Dickens (736 pages)

Picking a Dickens book for this list is like picking a favorite child, but this, his most autobiographical work, really shows us Dickens in a different light than his other works. Obviously read as much by him as you can, but don’t look this one over.

The Instructions, Adam Levin (1026 pages)

Levin might be responsible for kicking off this latest round of big-novel mania with this very long, weird, and funny tale of youth, rebellion, and messianic tendencies.

Tree of Smoke, Denis Johnson (720 pages)

Simply put: this novel, set during and using characters involved in the Vietnam War, is one of America’s greatest living authors’ greatest works. Maybe you think you know Johnson because you’ve read his short stuff, but Tree of Smoke is the book you must read by him.

Life and Fate, Vasily Grossman (896 pages)

One of the greatest works of literature to come out of Russia during the 20th century, Life and Fate could be looked at as the closest thing the Second World War had to a War and Peace. An absolute sprawling and haunting masterpiece that should be on every list.

A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth (1488 pages)

Set in 1950s Bombay, Seth’s novel of the search for a suitable husband for Lata really needs each of its nearly 1500 pages to tell such a rich, wonderful story.

Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell (1472 pages)

If you’re going to spend the 220 minutes it takes to watch the film, why wouldn’t you want to read the book? We know there’s no Clark Gable, but Mitchell’s book is still one of the most popular in American history; that has to be worth something.

Miss MacIntosh, My Darling, Marguerite Young (1198 pages)

Supposedly the fifth-largest novel written in the English language, Young began writing this book that has fallen out of popular conversation in 1947 and ended up finishing it in 1964. The least you can do is seek it out and give it a chance.

Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace (1104 pages)

The big book of the current generation, Wallace’s masterpiece is still one of those titles you see people laboring over all the time. Reading Wallace is an exercise in using your brain power no matter which of his works you pick up, but Infinite Jest is a totally different ballgame.

Les Misérables, Victor Hugo (1488 pages)

In some ways, Hugo’s classic is underrated, considering the massive success of the many musical stage and film adaptations that we more closely associate with the title. And that’s a shame since the book is really one of the greatest pieces of literature to come out of the 19th century. Give it a chance, then you can sing “Master of the House” all you want.

A House for Mr. Biswas, V.S. Naipaul (576 pages)

In the first book to bring him serious acclaim and notoriety, Naipaul looks closely at family and post-colonial life in a way few authors could do. It isn’t his greatest work, but it definitely needs to be read.

2666, Roberto Bolaño (912 pages)

Some might tell you that Bolaño’s sprawling novel gained the recognition it did because it was published after his death, but we’re here to tell you that 2666 truly is one of the finest books published in the last quarter-century.

Ulysses, James Joyce (736 pages)

Maybe you had a high school English teacher force it on you, or maybe you tried and failed to get into this benchmark of 20th century literature on your own. The thing with Ulysses is that you have to prepare yourself for it in the way that a long-distance runner might get set for a big race: stretch, breathe, pace yourself. We promise you will make it to the finish line, and you will feel great once you do.

War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy (1296 pages)

Not just the big book to end all big books, War and Peace could possibly be the greatest novel ever written. There isn’t really much to say about Tolstoy’s book that hasn’t been said, other than to reiterate how incredibly important and marvelous it is.

Doctor Zhivago, Boris Pasternak (704 pages)

Banned in the USSR because of its stance on the October Revolution, Pasternak’s magnum opus takes place between the Russian Revolution and Second World War, and ended up winning him the Nobel Prize for Literature after it was smuggled out of Russia and published in other languages.

The Ambassadors, Henry James (544 pages)

Arguing that a single James book is definitively his greatest is really a tough thing to do, but there is a strong chorus of readers and critics that will tell you this darkly humorous novel about the author’s native country of America and his adopted homeland of Paris is the first thing you should read before picking up anything else.

My Name Is Red, Orhan Pamuk (688 pages)

The Nobel Prize winner has an uncanny ability to jump between different influences and write in different tones and styles with each book. It’s a rare talent that few authors posses, and with My Name Is Red, he gives us flashes of Joyce, Borges, and Kafka to tell a tale set in the Ottman Empire during the 16th century.

Moby-Dick, Herman Melville (704 pages)

Pretty much the grandaddy of truly great big American novels, Melville’s most important work is really the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink big book. From its tense changes to Melville going on and on about the anatomy of the whale, there’s a truly great and unforgettable story in the 700-plus pages, but you need to read slowly and savor ever sentence to truly get it.