Third Coast Review writer Patrick T. Reardon recently published a fine piece in praise of tackling extra-long reads during the social isolation era. For those who’ve completed all the popular great big books and scoff at weak-sauce op-eds saying it’s okay not to attempt difficult reads, may I suggest the following?
What reader hasn’t experienced the bibliophilic horror of the Twilight Zone episode “Time Enough at Last”? Burgess Meredith plays Henry Bemis, a nebbishy bank clerk in coke-bottle glasses who’d rather be reading than anything else. Daily, Henry faces a cruel world intent on keeping him from his precious books, his book-hating wife and boss in particular telling him he’s wasting his time on “doggerel”.* Ultimate reader Henry bewails the lack of opportunity to read, wishing fervently for—title name check—time enough at last.
Hey, it’s the Twilight Zone. You know the drill.
As a habit, Mr. Bemis takes lunch in the bank’s vault—apparently something one did back then—and unwittingly syncs his reading/sandwich-eating with a hydrogen bomb’s dropping. He emerges unscathed, surrounded by rubble, and quite alone. At first he’s depressed and ready to put a bullet in his brain. Then he sees the ruins of the public library in the distance. Ecstatic, he gathers up stacks of books on the library steps and prepares to slake his textual thirst…until his glasses fall off and shatter, leaving him unable to read a word.”That’s not fair. That’s not fair at all. There was time now. There was—was all the time I needed! It’s not fair! It’s not fair!” wails Henry, who apparently never read about the radiation poisoning that’ll snuff him sooner than later.**
All gods in earshot willing, our readers won’t suffer a collective Bemishy fate—or worse. Still, if there was ever time enough at last to reduce that book stack rotting on your nightstand, it’s now. But why stop there? In the age of social isolation, consider the challenge of delving into a famous door stopper of a book. James Joyce’s Ulysses (498 pages), George Eliot’s Middlemarch (880 pages), David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1,079 pages), Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1,296 pages), or Joyce’s other work Finnegans Wake (a paltry 672 pages that feel like 10 times that). Consider them a marathon measured not in miles but words.
And yet…with time enough at last, why stop there? Why not turn that marathon into a triathlon…or that triathlon into an ultramarathon—one of those grueling, multi-kilometer endurance races only crazy-healthy, crazy-wealthy, or simply crazy people run—stacking several extra-long novels atop one another. If you’re wondering where to start, here’s a list of the longest novels ever written. Get to it, and may God have mercy on your soul.
Writer’s note: Naturally, I’ve read my way through all these books, and certainly haven’t relied on the Interweb to find out what-all they’re about. Now why would I lie about that?
The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu (1,184 pages)
Start with a novel that was the first novel, The Tale of Genji, written in the 11th century by a lady in waiting in the Japanese Imperial Court. A modern translation is available, but why do things by halves? Track down the original Japanese manuscript (it no longer exists, but you’re serious about completing this challenge, aren’t you?). Can’t read Japanese? Don’t feel sheepish. The Tale of Genji’s original text reads to modern Japanese readers the way Chaucer’s work reads to English speakers. And there are even more obstacles along the way. As Ian Buruma points out in this New Yorker essay:
“Every page is sprinkled with poems or phrases pointing to Chinese and Japanese literary sources that an eleventh-century aesthete might have been proud to notice but are lost on most Japanese today, let alone the reader of an English translation.”
Speaking of, the book didn’t receive an adequate translation until a few years ago, and even then, liberties were taken owing to the rarefied, courtly language used by Murasaki, filled as it was with obscure allusions and flowery medieval verse. Also, knowing who did what to whom is difficult, since characters are referred to only by court rank—it was tacky to use first names. Either way, if your life is lacking in knowledge about the niceties of sexless romance and court etiquette in Japan a millennia ago, go to it.
The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil (1,774 pages)
Several years ago, I told my friend Dave Mulcahey I’d challenged myself to read several of the big books mentioned in the introduction. He smirked, his eyebrows arched evilly, horns popped from his forehead, and I swear to God I caught a whiff of brimstone. “Dan,” he said with palpable smugness, “You need a real challenge.” He retrieved his two-volume hard-cover set of Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities from the shelf and dropped it in my hands. Fool that I was I retained my grip on the books even as their collective weight pulled me down, smashing through two hardwood floors before I landed in the basement in a three-foot-deep crater.
The book is German, which is your first warning, and has been described as a “modernist masterpiece”, which is your second alarm. The Man Without Qualities is one of those books critics and academics adore and declare brilliant, though their reviews rarely make it clear why. Writing for The Guardian, Jane Smiley tries to get at the crux of The Man Without Qualities’…uh…I want to say appeal, but I’m not sure that’s the correct word.
“It is well worth reading, even though it is very long, very slow, and was unfinished at the time of Robert Musil’s death. The first volume of The Man without Qualities runs to 365 pages, and the dilemma of the protagonist, Ulrich, is presented only on about page 300. Nevertheless, the writing is so precise and the argument Musil makes about Ulrich and his situation so intricate that it is intellectually and aesthetically involving even before it becomes emotionally so.”
Which may be so—emotionally or otherwise—though it feels like Smiley is running down the clock there. One benefit of grappling with The Man Without Qualities is that Musil died of a stroke in 1942, still hammering away at the book he’d begun in 1921. So, if you can’t finish The Man Without Qualities, don’t feel too bad. Neither could Robert Musil.
In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust (4,211 pages)
A Frenchman enjoys a cookie for an exquisite yet grueling 4,211 pages. C’est magnifique!
Did I win the Monty Python challenge?
Les Hommes de Bonne Volonté/(trans. Men of Good Will) by Jules Romain (7,892 pages)
Unanimism was a French lit movement founded by Jules Romain which the Merriam-Webster site defines as “a doctrine that the unifying principles in human groups are more significant (as for representation in literature) than personal individualities”. To that I nod sagely while wearing a tweed jacket with elbow patches and puffing my pipe, pretending I understand whatever the hell that means. The chief work of Unanimism turns out to be, surprise!, Jules Romain’s Les Hommes de Bonne Volonté, which is very nice for him.
Jules Romain is like Robert Musil in that pretty much only critics and college professors read him, and yet somehow he’s even less famous. Unsurprising, since he didn’t exactly produce a page-turner. Les Hommes de Bonne Volonté was published between 1932 and 1946, and is available in 27 volumes. It features 40 main characters, with a possible 1,600 in total, and—to employ the lazy high school sophomore book report technique—it explores many, many, many interesting and important themes, including marriage, friendship, dysfunctional families, fucked-up father-son relationships, Freemasonry, crime, and perverted sex stuff. Hot damn, this Loch Ness Monster-sized book might actually be a page-turner.
Artamène ou le Grand Cyrus by Georges de Scudéry…but actually Madeleine de Scudéry (13,095 pages)
The person behind Artamène… likely has a better story than the work itself. While the book is credited to her brother (which allowed her to publish it) Madeleine de Scudéry was a rather accomplished 17th century lady. After her parents died she and her brother were adopted by an uncle who looked after them and provided Madeleine with an extensive education unavailable to most women of her era. Writing several lengthy novels, of which Artamène… at 10 volumes, was the longest, Madeleine also formed a salon of writers and artists called the Saturday Society; had a long-time love affair with French author Paul Pellisson; and was ardent in her support of women’s education and rights. Madeleine went deaf in her fifties, but lived to be 93. Later she was decried as a hack and dilettante…mostly by male critics and writers, believe it or not. Decide for yourself after reading Artamène ou le Grand Cyrus here.
The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion by Henry Darger (15,145, pages)
Before everyone started losing their minds over Vivian Maier the Hermit-Nanny’s photography, Henry Darger was Chicago’s premier outsider artist/mystery-man. A strange little fellow who practiced social isolation before it was cool, Henry lived in Lincoln Park at 851 W. Webster Ave. He worked as a janitor by day, and spent his off-hours painting murals of bloody battles between vast evil armies and his heroines, the hermaphroditic Vivian Girls; recording the weather; and writing his magnum opus The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. Henry is better-known for his paintings than his novel—hand-written in a dozen or more notebooks—but at 15,000-plus pages it’s still an impressive, if loopy, meandering, and weather-obsessed work.
Sadly, no one has been crazy enough to publish Henry’s hypergraphia beyond a few excerpts. Presently, his rather messy studio apartment has been reconstructed at Intuit, the Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art (756 N. Milwaukee Ave.), but his manuscript is currently the property of the American Folk Art Museum in New York, and not likely to be lent out to the casual reader. You’re in luck though, sort of. Alison Amick, senior manager of Exhibitions and Development and chief curator at the center told me by email that “Intuit has recently digitized the microfilm copy we have of the manuscript,” which is currently “available to view on-site by appointment.” Regrettably, Intuit is closed during the COVID-19 shutdown, so list “Read The Story of the Vivian Girls, etc. etc. etc.” alongside the rest of your post-pandemic goals like “Go to restaurants again,” “Hit the beach”, and “Engage in physical contact.”.
*To be fair to his boss, Bemis reads David Copperfield in his teller’s cage when he should be working, and chats up his customers about Dickens—the 1959 version of slacking off on social media.
** It’s worth noting that Henry—who is not a cruel tycoon, evil college professor, or son of a bitch astronaut—is one of the Twilight Zone’s few receivers of unjust deserts. Rod Serling was just being an asshole.