How many times have you heard a reader remark, “If the book doesn’t grab me in the first few pages, I’m done?” Or the reader might state, “I don’t read anything over 250 pages,” as if there is a limit on how many words the brain is able to handle. The answer: a lot. Not every 850-page tome is worth your time, but many of the greatest works of literature are lengthy, and they are, quite simply, transformational.
Having just finished The Agony and the Ecstasy, A Biographical Novel of Michelangelo by Irving Stone, I share my appreciation for the long, slow read. The rare reading that takes place over many days, even a couple of months when the interruptions are many. I “read” Stone’s novel when I was young and must have skimmed it, remembering very little of the experience. This time around, I read the way one drinks a glass of fine wine, slowly, savoring each mouthful, assessing and determining flavors on parts of the tongue.
As I read The Agony and the Ecstasy, I periodically turned to my computer to view images of Michelangelo’s spectacular creations in frescoes and sculptures in marble. I thought I knew the artist before reading Stone’s work and then became humbled. Far more than Michelangelo’s life, Stone’s novel opened a window into the Renaissance, Catholic Church politics, a history of the dueling Popes, Medici rule of Florence—particularly, the rule of Magnifico Lorenzo Medici, and briefly, Rome, family structures and patriarchy. Walking in and out of Stone’s pages are Leonardo da Vinci, Rachael, the aesthete Girolamo Savonarola, Donatello, Ghiberti, Ghirlandaio, di Giovanni, Bandinelli, Botticelli, Dante Alighieri's influence, Florentine palaces and architecture, sculptural techniques, methods of marble extraction from the mountains, and the fact that Michelangelo wrote sonnets, over three-hundred, many to a woman of great talent, Vittorio Colonna, who wrote sonnets to Michelangelo in return.
At the end of Stone’s 758-page novel in which, “dusk was falling. Alone in the room, Michelangelo began to review the images of all the beautiful words he had created. He saw them, one by one, as clearly as the day he had made them, the sculptures, paintings and architecture succeeding each other as swiftly as had the years of his life,” peace finally came to the tortured artist as his soul leaves his broken body. At the end of Stone’s novel, a rush of new knowledge has flooded the mind of the reader, history and art washed over his or her eyes and into the mouth as if new breath; reader arriving in the world anew. Reading Stone’s novel is walking into history and along the streets of Firenze through its turmoil and proud, brief but multiple periods of independence.
Big reads include James Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake, both of which suggest that Joyce’s last page in his much shorter Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is prescient, as his work in Ulysses offers evidence of the young Stephen Dedalus’ (read Joyce here) pronouncement: “I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” Ireland and the Irish are alive and moving across the city of Dublin and out of the 736 pages in Ulysses. Ulysses is not an easy read, nor without particular challenges, because the work is stuffed to the edges of the page with Greek and Roman mythology allusions, among other allusions. Finnegan’s Wake is even more difficult, but both are metamorphic for the reader. Readers emerge from that reading cocoon changed creatures.
Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes’ widely alluded to novel The History of Don Quixote De La Mancha is around 976 pages and has been re-storied into plays and musicals in contemporary America. A hand-carved statue of Don Quixote stands proudly on my bookcase shelf.
Tolstoy’s Russian novel War and Peace is nearly 1,400 pages and is among the longest of the long reads. His spectacular Anna Karenina is short by comparison at around 840 pages, depending upon the edition. Fellow Russian Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov is well over 800 pages and one that had me openly sobbing in a department store at midnight when I was working as a teenage clerk on Christmas Eve many years ago. Victor Hugo’s classic tale Les Misérables is over 1,400 pages in length. Thomas Mann’s novel Joseph and His Brothers is around 1,500 pages, but at least it is written in four parts, meaning it is broken down into four books. Marcel Proust’s novel In Search of Lost Time, in thirteen volumes, is reported to be over 3,000 pages, and I have yet to read it. J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is another lengthy but incredible read in separate books.
Contemporary novelists tend to avoid the tome length unless they are written in a series of volumes, such as George R.R. Martin’s books in the Game of Thrones. Exceptions in the movement toward shorter manuscripts designed for today’s impatient reader include the late, great David Foster Wallace whose single volume novel Infinite Jest topped 1,000 pages of brilliant, American cultural madness. Stephen King’s The Stand stands at over 800 pages, depending upon the edition.
Vikram Seth’s novel A Suitable Boy is 1,349 pages in length. Vikram Chandra’s novel Sacred Games nears 1,000 pages, at 928. Elena Ferrante considers her grouping of novels to be one work, which would make the Neapolitan Novels collection around 1,650 pages in length. This listing scarcely touches upon some lengthy Indian and Arab authors’ novels that are well over the 1,000-page length. There are also plenty of novels in the sci-fi, fantasy, and romance genres that are over 1,000 pages.
These lengthy creative works are not all transformational, but the occasional long read is very often well worth the effort and time a reader devotes to this interaction with a text. I may have to start Proust's In Search of Time, after all.