I’ve got so many books that I want to read that one of my top criteria for reading a book is length. I tend to favour shorter books – that way I don’t get bogged down in a book for a long time, and I can get quicker onto the next book which I can’t wait to read. Reading challenges help keep me reading shorter books too – my target is fifty books read in 2020, and I’m more or less on target but can’t afford to spend several weeks on one book. This sort of thinking isn’t necessarily a good thing though – some of the best books are huge tomes and I’m missing out. If you’re the same, then here’s 10 great long reads to really get your teeth into. I feel a ‘Reading the Chunksters’ challenge coming on.
As usual, the title links go to the book’s Goodreads page. I’ve also included a link to buy the books from the newest online bookshop, bookshop.org, which supports independent bookshops. You can read my post about it here.
Sarum by Edward Rutherfurd – This is one of my favourite historical fiction books of all time, and probably one of my favourite books in any genre. Many people describe his as a British James Michener, which is certainly appropriate in this book. Sarum is the story of Salisbury and surrounding area, told through the perspective of several families down the ages from prehistory to the early 20th century. The building of Salisbury Cathedral is included in this book, as is Stonehenge. Like Michener’s books, this is quite episodic, so you never stay with one character for a very long amount of time, but the families themselves become the characters, and just as you sadly leave one character, you find yourself drawn to their children, grandchildren and so on. I’ve read several books by Edward Rutherfurd, and this is the best one I’ve read. Page count: 912.
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The Stand by Stephen King – Stephen King isn’t known for his short books, but even for him this is a long one – his longest I believe. It started out over 800 pages long when it was first published, but that was after a lot had been cut. Many years later he had the opportunity to release an ‘authors preferred edition’, after which it reached 1,152 pages. The Stand is a post-apocalyptic story, set after a pandemic has wiped out most of the world’s population, leaving a few survivors to fight for survival – not the most comfortable backdrop as I write this in 2020, but for most of the book it has already happened at least. It is set in modern day (well, 1970s) in North America, and has a large cast. It is hugely epic in scope, and if it doesn’t quite match up to the author’s ambition to create a modern era Lord of the Rings, but it isn’t far off. I read this 10-15 years ago now and it took me two months at the time, but it was worth the time spent.
Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurty – You might have thought that westerns are all short, poorly written stereotypical stories, but if so then you’ve never come across Larry McMurty’s masterpiece, Lonesome Dove. The book is set in the late 1870s, at the end of the Old West, and features two famous retired Texas Rangers, Captain Woodrow F. Call and Captain Augustus ‘Gus’ McRae, along with many other characters. It is in places a thoughtful, contemplative novel and in other parts plenty of action. Its themes are life, old age, love and friendship. Page count: 960.
Centennial by James Michener – In many people’s estimation James Michener is historical fiction, or at least that big epic epoch spanning historical fiction that he spent most of his career writing. This is just the sort of book I love and yet I’m ashamed to admit I haven’t read anything by him. If you are not familiar with Michener, then this is his approach: take a particular place or culture, create several sets of families and then write the story of that place over the course of hundreds of years. Nearly all of his books are doorstoppers because they have to be. There are many great characters in his stories, but then the main character is history itself. Centennial came out in the 1970s, around the bicentennial of America, and traces of the history of the Colorado region of America from prehistory to the 20th century. Page count: 1,056.
Truman by David McCullough – I wanted to include a non-fiction book on this list, and Truman immediately sprang to mind. David McCullough is a bestselling popular historian in America. I’ve read a couple of books by him, but so far only his shorter ones, including Mornings on Horseback, about Theodore Roosevelt, and 1776 about the first year of the American Revolution. His best books are general to be considered his lengthy biographies of US Presidents John Adams and Harry S Truman, both of which have won the Pulitzer Prize. Either would be worthy of a place on this list, but I know less about Truman, so I’m going to go with that one. Page count: 1,120US.
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Shogun by James Clavell – Another historical saga here, this time set in feudal Japan. After Englishman Blackthorne is lost at sea, he wakes up in the strange land of Nippon, and must survive the cut and thrust of Japanese politics and war. The book is based on the real life exploits of William Adams, an English navigator who arrived in Japan in 1600 and wasn’t allowed to leave. This book is exciting, edge of the seat action, in a culture that must be new to most readers. I used to see this book a lot in secondhand bookstores, and while it didn’t appeal enough to me then to buy it, is high on my to be read list now.
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Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy – This is Tolstoy’s other famous book – I was tempted to go with War and Peace, which has got to be one of the longest ever novels at over 1300 page , but decided to be kind to the reader and go with Anna Karenina which is considerably shorter at 964 pages. It is considered (by some) to be the world’s greatest novel. It’s certainly an experience if you’ve got the time – I read it a couple of years ago over the course of a month and found it enjoyable and fascinating. The book is about a young aristocratic wife who is in a loveless marriage and embarks on an affair with Count Vronsky, despite knowing there will be consequences. There’s a huge cast of character; this is a real exploration of human nature, and provides a glimpse into upper class life in 19th century Russia.
Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett – Younger readers may not realise it, but Ken Follett was a very popular thriller writer in the 1970s and 1980s (which are still very readable today), so when this dropped into bookshops in 1989 it was something out of character, a writer stepping well out of their comfort zone. Lucky for us he did though – it immediately became massively popular, spending 18 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list – to date it has sold over 25 million copies. It is about the building of a mighty cathedral in the fictional town of Kingsbridge in 12th century England, and centres around The Anarchy, a time of unrest and civil war in England due to a succession crisis. The book is long in time and page count – 50 years and 976 pages according to Goodreads. It is a standalone book, though many years later Follett wrote two sequels plus a prequel, and together the books now form the Kingsbridge Series.
Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien – I am sort of cheating here, because the Lord of the Rings is a trilogy of three books, but it is often crammed into one volume so I’m going to allow it. Most people have probably at least heard of Tolkien’s masterpiece, for the film series if not for the books. If you only know this from the films though, good as they are, then you are missing out. There is a huge amount of culture and worldbuilding stuffed into this book – Tolkien created whole histories, mythologies and languages from the books. This wasn’t the first major work of fantasy, but it massively popularised it, and created the groundwork for the fantasy genre today. I first read this when I was about 10 or 11, re-read it in my teens and haven’t read it since. It may be time for a re-read.
Bleak House by Charles Dickens – Dickens is certainly known for his long reads, but most of them are not super long, they just feel long because of the author’s proclivity for dense, descriptive prose. Bleak House though is long – according to Goodreads it is 1,017 pages (though if you’ve got one of those small typeface classics range copies it will look a lot shorter). The book centres around the obscure court case of Jarndyce & Jarndyce, the contest over an initially large inheritance which gradually gets whittled away by legal fees! It is part legal thriller, part police procedural, part character study, part social commentary. In other words, it has got a bit of everything in it (except aliens, there’s no little green men in it!). It is not considered to be one of his easiest books, but is widely considered to be one of his best.
So that’s it, top ten great long reads for you to enjoy. If anything, this list is quite heavy on historical fiction, but then a lot of really long reads seem to be historical fiction for some reason – possibly it is because the long sweep of history needs a lot of pages to do it justice.