I like big books and I cannot lie.
I confess that I have escaped life between the pages of a book like some people escape into alcohol or drugs. The comfort of a big book, for me, is that it will not end too soon and one can postpone the final-page slump that inevitably comes when a shorter book reaches its premature end.
When I was a child we would prepare for our Scottish holiday by choosing six books from the library. Before the two day drive to our destination was over, me and my sister had finished all of our library books. The rest of the holidays were spent with nothing to read, waiting for the treat of a town with a bookshop where we could make a rare purchase of a paperback read. I now travel with a Kindle, because I never want to have to risk this experience again.
I have been known to cry (make that sob) at the end of a very good book, not because the story was sad but for sheer despair that something so lovely was gone. I don’t have a very good memory for the novels I read, but once a book is read it an never really be read again. When the Canadian novelist Carol Shields died in 2003 I had been reading the novels one by one as they were published. The thought that I would never read a new Carol Shields novel again descended on me like a life sentence. Whilst her family and close fiends were grieving the loss of a special person taken too soon, I was just upset that a source of particularly good reads had dried up for good.
These is some of the history behind my love of big books. With a big book on your bedside table you can delay, for the time being, all of the anxieties of what to read next. Starting a big book is full of challenge and adventure, like the first day in a new job. Reaching the end of a big book is like approaching the summit of a mountain or delivering a baby after a long labour. A big book in the coffee shop, or propped open on the train is a sign to all the world that you are no amateur when it comes to fiction. With a big book in my bag I feel like I could take on the world.
So, if you too are looking for some long reads for the summer, here are five recommendations, all over 800 pages long.
I’m very grateful that my sister pointed out to me that Anna Karenina is a better read than War and Peace. War and Peace is an epic of Russian history with multiple families and storylines to keep up with, whereas Anna Karenina is on a smaller scale. Adultery and self discovery set against of background of Russian class war, this is everything you want from an epic nineteenth century novel.
Following the recent Radio 4 adaptation I went out and bought second hand copies of both volumes. The second volume will be my summer holiday big book read. Irene Forsythe is just as fine a character as Anna Karenina, in this vast family saga of feuds, fortunes and emotional tragedy.
The musical beautifully covers just a tiny portion of the full story. This novel transports the reader to nineteenth century France through a series of diverse characters, locations and historic events. Monseigneur Myriel, the bishop, is one of my favourite character in fiction. This novel reads like many smaller novels in one volume, with carefully plotted connections and interactions, that create a cohesive whole.
I will be forever grateful to my dear friend bookshop Jo who suggested this book to me during an intense season of insomnia and low mood. It provided the perfect escape. The story centres around a small art work that becomes separated from the gallery that owns it. Avoiding too many spoilers, the quality of writing in the scene that sets the plot in motion is exquisite and the pace and tension of the rest of the novel makes for a compelling read, something that is essential in a very long book.
My love of all things medieval, especially cathedrals, means I was destined to read this epic tale of ambition, power and intrigue, though it isn’t the type of book I would usually choose. Some of the writing , characterisation and plot device is pretty dire but spite this I don’t regret the time I spent on this book. I especially enjoyed the opportunity to enter into the minds of a late medieval master builder and his prior, even if the portrays did lack a certain psychological realism.
Happy (long) reading!