BY NATALIE VAN BOOVEN
I love books, as anyone who knows me will tell you. As an end-of-semester treat, therefore, I have decided to take a break from reporting on world events and focus instead on something that pleases me. I had four criteria for a long book: (1) it had to exceed 500 pages, (2) it had to have been published more than 20 years ago, (3) it had to stand alone as a text; illustrated and annotated editions were disqualified and (4) it had to have been a one-off, not part of a series.
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky: 522 pages (Signet Classics, 2006)
Impoverished former law student, Rodion Raskolnikov, acting on his theory that extraordinary people can do wrong if those wrongdoings can offer humanity something worthwhile, murders an elderly pawnbroker and her sister. The murders are the crime; the punishment, which guides the rest of the novel, lies in Raskolnikov’s reluctance to confess. Not until he meets Sonya Marmeladov, whose family he helped after a carriage crushed her alcoholic father, does he confess to police inspector Porfiry Petrovich, who had suspected Raskolnikov’s guilt ever since Raskolnikov almost confessed the murders to him a few days after they happened.
The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot: 546 pages (A. L. Burt Co., 1932)
Siblings Tom and Maggie Tulliver grow up by the Dorlcote Mill on the Floss River, near the fictional Lincolnshire (England) village of St. Ogg’s. While Tom leaves school for the world of business to alleviate his father’s declaration of bankruptcy, Maggie leaves the world of the intellect for the world of the spiritual, inspired by Thomas à Kempis’s medieval Catholic devotional The Imitation of Christ. However, her relationship with a childhood friend named Philip Wakem strains both her spiritual devotion and her bond with Tom. Eventually, Tom and Maggie reconcile.
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens: 751 pages (Oxford University Press, 1981)
This book would make this list just for its full title: The Personal History, Adventures, Experience, and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery (Which He Never Meant to Publish on Any Account). The most autobiographical of Dickens novels sees David Copperfield be sent to school by his stepfather, Edward Murdstone. After David’s mother dies, Murdstone has David work for a London wine merchant, but David leaves London for Dover and for his great aunt, Betsey Trotwood, when his landlord and caretaker, Wilkins Micawber, is sent to debtors’ prison. As David grows up, several people come in to and out of his life, such as Agnes Wickfield (daughter of David’s new landlord), Uriah Heep (whose name is now shorthand for a yes-man) and Peggoty (his childhood housekeeper).
Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon: 760 pages (The Viking Press, 1973)
Perhaps the only way to summarize this book is to say that it happens between 1944 and 1945, with a preview of 1970. It opens with a Special Operations Executive employee named Pirate Prentice, whose associate, Teddy Bloat, photographs a map of the sexual encounters of the book’s protagonist, U. S. Army Lt. Tyrone Slothrop. Slothrop’s encounters are significant enough to warrant a map because each one occurs several days before a German V-2 rocket strikes London. Wanting to find the reason for Slothrop’s clairvoyance, the fictional psychological warfare agency PISCES discovers that Slothrop’s encounters and the rocket strikes correlate with the Poisson Distributions computed by Roger Mexico.
Middlemarch by George Eliot: 795 pages (Quality Paperback Book Club, 1994)
Dorothea Brooke, wanting to take on a noble project, marries Casaubon, a wizened scholar who cares more for his books than for his wife. As divorce in Victorian times was allowed only for abuse or adultery, Dorothea is stuck. Meanwhile, Tertius Lydgate, a young doctor, launches his practice in the town of Middlemarch (England), but the townspeople care little for this foreigner with new ideas. He marries Rosamund Vincy, a patient’s sister, and their marriage becomes as unhappy as Dorothea and Casaubon’s.
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy: 817 pages (Viking Penguin, 2001)
In 19th-century czarist Russia, Darya Alexandrovna Oblonskaya (Dolly) threatens to leave her husband, Stepan Arkadyich Oblonsky (Stiva), after discovering his affair with their children’s nanny. Because Stiva does not fully comprehend Dolly’s distress (we later learn that he continually flirts with other women), he brings in his sister, Anna Arkadyevna Karenina, as a mediator; Anna succeeds. At the same time as this mediation, Dolly’s younger sister, Ekaterina Alexandrovna Shcherbatskaya (Kitty), has two suitors: a raffish and wealthy soldier named Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky (whose mother Anna shared a train car with) and a socially awkward landowner named Konstantin Dmitrivich Levin. The rest of the novel follows Vronsky as he falls in love with Anna (who is already married to the bland and dutiful bureaucrat Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin) and Levin as he falls in love with Kitty. As the title indicates, the main focus is on Anna and Vronsky’s turbulent relationship, rather than on Kitty and Levin’s peaceable-by-comparison relationship.
2666 by Roberto Bolaño: 893 pages (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008)
The lives of four European literary critics, a Chilean philosophy professor, an American journalist, and many others intersect in Santa Teresa, Mexico (a fictionalized Ciudad Juárez), where at least 300 young and uneducated women have been murdered. The book’s events correspond well with real life; Juárez is infamous for its narcotics trafficking as well as for its serial murders. Though the city’s homicide rate has decreased since 2004, over 1000 murders committed between 1993 and 2003 remain unsolved, partly because of alleged police involvement. According to English literary critic Henry Hitchings, the book’s title refers to the ancient Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, which supposedly happened 2666 years after God created Adam and Eve.
Bleak House by Charles Dickens: 905 pages (Oxford University Press, 1996)
In the Court of Chancery, which decides civil lawsuits, a case called Jarndyce and Jarndyce has seethed for many years. Because the case has spent so much time in court, many people are connected to it. Foremost among the connected people is the book’s protagonist, Esther Summerson, who sometimes narrates the book in place of an omniscient narrator. Other characters include Esther’s guardian, Mr. John Jarndyce; Jarndyce’s other two wards, Ada Clare and Richard Carstone; Esther’s biological mother, Lady Dedlock; Lady Dedlock’s husband, Sir Leicester Dedlock; and a lawyer involved in the Jarndyce lawsuit, Mr. Tulkinghorn.
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace: 981 pages (Little, Brown and Co., 1996)
At the center of this book is a film cartridge’s missing master copy. Interested in the film, called Infinite Jest, are the Incandenza family (mother Avril, father James Jr. and sons Orio, Mario and Hal), students at the Enfield Tennis Academy (Michael Pemulis, John “No Relation” Wayne and Ortho “The Darkness” Stice), patients at The Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House (Don Gately and Joelle Van Dyne), and a Québécois separatist group (Les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents, or the Wheelchair Assassins). The film Infinite Jest is notorious for entertaining its viewers so much that they lose interest in literally everything else. Therefore, the Wheelchair Assassins want it to aid their terrorist acts meant for America, while the United States Office of Unspecified Services wants to intercept it so that they can maintain the stability of the Organization of North American Nations.
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy: 1146 pages (The Modern Library, 1931)
As with Gravity’s Rainbow, the best way to summarize War and Peace might be to say that it happens between 1805 and 1813, during the Napoleonic Wars. In fact, this book’s scope is so broad (the character list on Wikipedia actually spans the entire alphabet) that any summary would need nearly 20 paragraphs—six for the main characters (Pierre Bezukhov, Andrei Bolkonsky, Anatol Kuragin, Hélène Kuragin, Natasha Rostova and Nikolai Rostov), five for the historical characters (Alexander I of Russia, Pyotr Bagration, Napoléon Bonaparte, Mikhail Kutuzov and Fyodor Rostopchin), and eight for the historical events (Battle of Austerlitz, Battle of Borodino, Battle of Krasnoi, Battle of Schöngrabern, Fire of Moscow, French Invasion of Russia, Napoleonic Wars and Treaties of Tilsit). If you want a summary that can be followed in one sitting, then check out Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture,” known properly as “The Year 1812.” Instead of referring to the people and events of 1812 directly, he uses several melodies to allude to them; for example, the French national anthem “La Marseillaise” represents the French, while the Eastern Orthodox tune “O Lord, Save Thy People” represents the Russians.
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand: 1168 pages (Dutton, 1992)
If you like trains, dystopias, superheroes and Aristotle’s laws of logic, then this book is for you. Ayn Rand’s heroes were not aliens from other planets but individuals fighting to do what they want as they see fit—in this case, Dagny Taggart and Henry “Hank” Rearden. Dagny is the vice president of operations at Taggart Transcontinental, whose Rio Norte Line is the last to surrender to nationalization. Hank is a steel baron who creates Rearden Metal, distinctive for its blue-green color and for its strength. Both must contend with increasingly oppressive government directives (particularly Directive 10-289, which requires all patent holder to sign their patents over to the government), personal unhappiness (marital and otherwise), looters (Rand’s word for those who take property from capitalists), and a workers’ strike. The book’s title alludes to the strike at the end. When Hank asks Francisco d’Anconia (the strike’s most active recruiter and Dagny’s first sweetheart) what he would do in this situation if he were Atlas, Francisco says that he would shrug. Put another way, Francisco’s answer is his attempt to offer Hank a way out of the strike.
Les Misérables by Victor Hugo: 1232 pages (Penguin, 1986)
After spending 19 years in prison for breaking and entering a shop to get some bread for his starving sister and her child (14 years were added for trying to escape), the newly paroled Jean Valjean stumbles into the French town of Digne and onto the doorstep of bishop M. Myriel. In his astonishment at Myriel continuously overlooking his criminal status, Valjean steals Myriel’s silverware. When the police return Valjean to Myriel’s house, all Myriel says is that, in his rush to leave, Valjean forgot to take the matching silver candlesticks with him, which persuades the police to let Valjean go. Then Myriel makes a deal with Valjean: In return for keeping the candlesticks, Valjean must become an honest man. Valjean spends the rest of the novel embodying his promise to Myriel, and his efforts end up affecting at least half a dozen people.
A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth: 1349 pages (HarperCollins, 1993)
Old and new clash in 1950s India. The old comes in the form of Mrs. Rupa Mehra, who tries to find the title’s “suitable boy” for her 19-year-old daughter. The new comes in the form of Rupa’s daughter Lata, who wants to choose for herself, without “help” from her mother or from her brother Arun. In between the choices Lata has to make, readers observe land reforms, Hindu-Muslim friction (Pakistan is now a separate country), the end of the Zamindari system (zamindar meaning “landowner” in Persian and referring to now-former aristocracy), and the relationships between four families (the Mehras, the Kapoors, the Khans and the Chatterjis). The complex relationships between the families, along with the comprehensive changes to Indian society, are why A Suitable Boy is one of the longest single-volume books in the English language.
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell: 1448 pages (Pocket Books, 2008)
Katie Scarlett O’Hara is not a typical Southern lady—at least not in the eyes of her neighbors during the American Civil War and Reconstruction. She marries once (Charles Hamilton dies of measles two months after the war starts), single-handedly rebuilds her beloved home (Tara) after the Yankee soldiers strip it bare, marries twice (Frank Kennedy dies trying to avenge an attack some men made on her), and marries thrice (Rhett Butler eventually realizes that their marriage was bound to be troublesome). Through all her highs and lows, Scarlett exhibits a quality known as gumption, which Margaret Mitchell defined as the capacity for survival and which Mitchell saw in her relatives’ eyes as they told her about their experiences as Confederate soldiers.
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas Sr.: 1462 pages (The Modern Library, 1996)
Edmond Dantès’ life starts out so well; he gets a promotion at work and is set to marry the love of his life, a local woman named Mercédès. Unfortunately, just before the wedding begins, he is framed for treason and sentenced to life in prison, thanks to two supremely jealous men. Danglars, accountant for the ship that Edmond steered home when the captain died en route (which is how he got the promotion), envies Edmond’s success; meanwhile, Fernand Mondego, a local angler, loves Mercédès and wants her for himself. Over the next 117 chapters, we watch Edmond as he escapes from prison, dons multiple disguises and proceeds to destroy Danglars and Mondego’s lives. Eventually, Edmond realizes that revenge has caused him more problems than he started out with, so he gives it up altogether.