Penguin Classics

The longest novel in Penguin Classics and Penguin Modern Classics is In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust. This modernist masterpiece sprawls across six chunky volumes and a total of 3,616 pages. Assuming a pace of one page a minute, In Search of Lost Time will take you two solid days, twelve hours and sixteen minutes to read, that is if you don’t pause to sleep, eat a madeleine or pursue an involuntary train of thought back to your childhood and your ailing aunt Leonie.

Big books such as In Search of Lost Time present a paradox. They are forbiddingly, unappealingly long, and yet the very fact that they are widely read despite their extreme size implies that their rewards are correspondingly tremendous, and this makes them all the more attractive. They present a challenge. Like peak baggers drawn to higher and higher mountains, readers strolling in the foothills of literature are aware that in the distance, swathed in clouds and capped with snow, are tantalising summits named Moby-Dick (720 pages), The Count of Monte Cristo (1,312 pages) and The Story of the Stone (2,576 pages). We want to read them, because they are there.

Finding sixty hours to read Proust is not straightforward, however. Reading and rereading a page or two as you fall asleep each night is not going to cut it. A rambler needs different techniques if she wants to climb a mountain, and the same applies to tackling big books. Here is my advice on how to reach literary base camp and make a summit attempt on the biggest books.

1. Pore over the map

As Lao Tzu says in the Tao Te Ching (192 pages), ‘a journey of a thousand miles starts from beneath one’s feet.’ Get hold of a copy of your book and map it out. How many chapters are there? How are they organised? What are the book’s contours and landmarks? The table of contents may be helpful, but it’s never as good as rifling the pages yourself, getting used to the typesetting, the section breaks, the overall shape of the book. Last year I read Les Misérables by Victor Hugo (1,456 pages) and I started by sussing out the structure. That book is split into five roughly equal ‘parts’; each part consists of eight or more ‘books’; and each book is divided into chapters, some of which are as short as a single page.

2. Devise a plan

Once you have a feel for your book, split it into manageable chunks. Take into account your reading speed, how much time you have for reading each week, whether you want to be reading anything else at the same time and when you want to finish the book. There are 365 chapters in Les Misérables, so I decided to take an entire year to read it: one chapter a day. That felt manageable alongside life, work and other books. Identify waypoints: where you should have reached at the end of each month, for instance. These are useful if you drop behind from time to time. Some books fall naturally into these mini instalments. I have always thought how fun it would be to read The Arabian Nights (2,784 pages) over one thousand and one actual nights. After two years and nine months, you would really have an appreciation for the scope of Scheherazade’s imagination . . .

3. Travel in company

It’s dangerous to go mountain climbing on your own and it’s more enjoyable to read big books in company. My partner and I both read Les Misérables last year. This year we’re reading War and Peace (1,440 pages) and her brother is joining us. You live with a big book for a long time, so it’s more fun to share the experience: you can discuss characters as they are introduced, commiserate over sad turns of events and celebrate surprises. Reading with a friend also gives you the stamina to keep going. Inevitably one of you will be ahead at any one time, so they can call back with words of encouragement. If you get bogged down in a dense authorial detour, it’s very reassuring to know when you’ll be out on solid ground again. Be Sherpas for each other. Aphra Behn, author of the novel Oroonoko (144 pages), said that ‘a faithful friend and a good library’ are the keys to ‘perfect tranquillity of life’.

4. Keep the book alive

You’re all set to go. Simply follow your plan, keep up with your chunks, lean on your reading companion if necessary, and persevere to the final page. Except, it’s not always that simple. We all know that it is much easier to start a book than to finish it. With a big book especially, it’s easy to get distracted and lose momentum. The oxygen runs thin as the page numbers climb. Some people are blessed with the self-motivation to keep plugging away, but sometimes you need a little help.

I’m going to suggest a couple of tricks that I personally find both entertaining and helpful for keeping a challenging book alive. They won’t suit everyone but you might find you like them.

i) Real Time

Try letting a book unfold in real time. Ulysses by James Joyce (1,040 pages) takes place over the course of a single day, June 16th. The action starts at 8am and finishes at 4am the following morning. This year I am challenging myself to read the whole of Ulysses in a day: I will start at 8am, I’ll eat when the characters eat (nutty gizzards for breakfast), the sun will set at the right time, and I’m going to try to keep going all the way into the small hours.

Another suggestion is Dante’s Divine Comedy (1,744 pages), which takes place over the course of Easter week, from the Thursday before Good Friday until noon the following Thursday. The only snag is that Paradiso is set in heaven, outside time and space. You’ll either have to pause terrestrial time or accept a compromise.

For a lengthier challenge, pick up a copy of the longest English novel, Clarissa by Samuel Richardson (1,356 pages). This epistolary novel consists entirely of letters, and each letter is helpfully dated, so you could read them all in real time, as the narrative unrolls over the course of a year, from January 10th until December 18th. (Clarissa is set in 1747, by the way, when January 10th fell on a Tuesday. If you want to read it with the correct days of the week, make a date for 2023.)

This kind of temporal context adds a ‘real-life’ element to your reading, which can really help you stick with a book and makes for a highly memorable experience.

ii) Real Place

You get a similar effect by reading a book in the right locations. In the past I have recreated Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (1,328 pages), gathering a group of pilgrims and walking from London to Canterbury, telling all the tales along the way. As far as possible we kept to the locations specified in the poem: the monk told her tale outside Rochester Cathedral, for example, and the knight told his at the ‘Watering of St Thomas’, a holy stream that today is below a Tesco car park on the Old Kent Road. Spreading the tales over four days and sixty miles gave us the time to discuss each story, and the space to appreciate the work as a whole.

Other possibilities you might consider are taking a trip to the city of Ferrara in northern Italy and reading Giorgio Bassani’s six-book series The Novel of Ferrara (1,296 pages); you could tilt around La Mancha reading Don Quixote (1,056 pages); or you could hole up in New York to read Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand (1,184 pages). A dream of mine is to gather a group of ten friends and rent a palazzo in Fiesole for ten days one summer: we could retell all one hundred stories from The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio (1,072 pages).

I hope some of these ideas will help you to enjoy the longest and the greatest works of literature in the world. Here is a list of the ten longest novels in Penguin Classics and Penguin Modern Classics to whet your appetite . . .

 

1.          In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust (3,408 pages, 6 volumes)

2.          The Story of the Stone, Cao Xueqin (2,576 pages, 5 volumes)

3.          Les Misérables, Victor Hugo (1,456 pages)

4.          War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy (1,440 pages)

5.          The Mysteries of Paris, Eugéne Sue (1,392 pages)

6.          Clarissa, Samuel Richardson (1,356 pages)

7.          The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas (1,312 pages)

8.          The Tale of Genji, Murasaki Shikibu (1,216 pages)

9.          Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand (1,184 pages)

10.       Bleak House, Charles Dickens (1,088 pages)

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    The Penguin Classics Book is a reader's companion to the largest library of classic literature in the world.

    Spanning 4,000 years from the legends of Ancient Mesopotamia to the poetry of the First World War, with Greek tragedies, Icelandic sagas, Japanese epics and much more in between, it encompasses 500 authors and 1,200 books, bringing these to life with lively descriptions, literary connections and beautiful cover designs.

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