How to read the longest classic books

If the thought of starting a book with over 1,000 pages feels slightly daunting then our Penguin Classics Editor, Henry Eliot shares his creative tips to see you through to the last word.

Henry Eliot
Balancing the books. Image: Stuart Simpson / Penguin

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, 12 hours and 16 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 60 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.

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 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 10 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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