5 Daunting Doorstoppers You've Just Gotta Have!

I know any lover of books will understand when I say that there are masterpieces you buy to read and masterpieces you buy to shelve. You intend to read that Don Quixote or War and Peace or Ulysses some day -- you believe that its presence on your bookshelf alone makes you a little smarter -- but somehow you never get around to cracking the covers.

That's understandable enough. And forgivable. But how is it that the contemporary equivalents of these massive, literary novels sell so well that they climb onto bestseller lists? That people you can't imagine having the time to read a challenging work, much less a bohemoth of 898 pages, are suddenly chatting about it freely over dinnertables?

Here are five books I suspect have more owners than readers. That's not a crime! Not even a bad thing! Let's call it the fat-book-you've-gotta-have phenomenon.

British novelist and 2007 Nobel Prize winner for literature, Doris Lessing. (Kieran Doherty/Reuters)

1.The Golden Notebook, by Doris Lessing. The slimmest of the lot, numbering a mere 668 pages, it's the story of a Anna Wulf, a communist writer living in postwar London and struggling with writer's block. Written in 1962, it quickly became a feminist manifesto, the kind of book you clutched to your chest in protest marches. But it seemed more talked about than truly read, although I'd argue it's the 2007 Nobel laureate's best work.

2. The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco. I was an editor at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich in the 1980s when this book was published, and even we (the happy publishers!) were astounded by the book's success. It was not an easy novel. In fact, it was downright erudite. The author was a linguistics professor in Rome! And it weighed in at more than 700 pages. Yet the book was flying off bookstore shelves, making us rich, defying gravity.

3. Gravity's Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon. Speaking of gravity, there's this: an 800-page epic as sprawling as it is significant to the contemporary American canon. It won the National Book Award when it was published in 1973. But it's a daunting work about a daunting subject -- the impact of technology on the human animal. Have all its admirers read it all the way through? I hope so, but suspect not.

4. Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace. A great, wondrous carnival of a novel. But at 1,104 pages, a certain calculus goes into play: In the same space of time it would take me to finish it, a cagey reader thinks, I could consume four or five other volumes! You could beg, hector and cajole, but it would take an enormous act of will and devotion to make that person sit down and give it the attention it deserves.

5. 2666, by Roberto Bolaño. Okay. I'll admit that, despite its 898 pages, I'm going to read every word of this big, fat book. I've read everything Bolaño has published. And though this last, posthumous novel has only recently been released, let me go out on a limb and predict that it will garner superb reviews, win prizes and sell many thousands of copies. That's good! All very good. By all accounts, it's a dazzlingly original novel. But I wonder how many of its ardent fans will actually read it. (Yes, Virginia, there are fans who don't read the book they persuasively claim to love.)

Surely you have other examples.

-- Marie Arana

By Marie Arana |  November 13, 2008; 7:01 AM ET Marie Arana
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The unabridged version of Les Miserables. I have been carting that book around for 22 years. I even started to read it about 20 years ago but put it down after reading about 150 pages about the priest who, while important to the storyline, only appears in the beginning of the novel.

I don't know how A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth did upon its release, but at more than 1,400 pages, it does look daunting.

Posted by: kleewrite | November 13, 2008 10:17 AM

I actually read the unabridged Les Miz when I was in high school. I had an all-day baby-sitting job and I read it when the kids napped!

The ones I have:
--unabridged Count of Monte Cristo
--War and Peace (I started it, and then...)
Right now I'm reading Bleak House, which clocks in at over 950 pages.

Posted by: choirgirl04 | November 13, 2008 11:00 AM

Oh, and Don Quixote. Maybe it we have a really, really cold winter I'll finally pick it off of the coffee table, where it has been languishing for about 9 months.

Posted by: choirgirl04 | November 13, 2008 11:03 AM

I've got War and Peace, Don Quixote and Bleak House waiting for me as well. Someday I'll get to those...

Posted by: kleewrite | November 13, 2008 11:48 AM

Delillo's Underworld.

Posted by: heartprivacy | November 13, 2008 3:06 PM

Underworld's another one that's waiting for me to read -- in hardcover. Because I just couldn't wait for the paperback.

Posted by: kleewrite | November 13, 2008 3:16 PM

Geez, someone needs to reject your whole guilt-by-association premise here. Mightn't it be that there're 'book lovers' entirely unlike yourself who do read the books they buy? A-and enjoy it? Why celebrate the demise of reading by snickering about 'daunting', 'bohemoth', and 'doorstopper' novels that are just brilliantly entertaining, and as lengthy as was necessary to make them what they are, including possibly worth reading?
I read Don Quixote 4 times in a row last year. It's an amazing, very funny novel. Over the course of the last thirty years I've read Gravity's Rainbow 11 times. I've been reading Pynchon's critically maligned Against the Day for a 5th time. And why not? I'm not boasting; these are hugely entertaining novels, and they just get better each time you read them. They may even be as much fun as watching the same TV shows over and over. Imagine that!

It's bad enough that reading, let alone reading literature, for pleasure is going the way of scrimshaw or whittling to pass the time and engage the mind, so why make scapegoats of our greatest authors and those who love to read their stuff?

In fact 'any lover of books' may NOT 'understand when [you] say there are masterpieces you buy to read and masterpieces you buy to shelve.' Book lovers understand that books are worth having and worth reading. Maybe even rereading.
Why not loosen your embrace of the wholesale denigration of reading literature and instead turn people onto reading for the sheer pleasure of it. Maybe try doing it without pelting us with bohemoth dollops of your terribly "clever" and "hip" style.

This column reads like just another excuse to jeer at folks who read. What a depressing waste of the shrinking space allotted to books and 'book lovers'.

Posted by: room237 | November 13, 2008 4:05 PM

This was certainly not meant to be a sneer. How could a book editor, who works the fields every day, possibly want to sneer at books and their readers? My comment was merely about books that are bought to be put on a shelf. Books as furniture. Truth be told, the only book I haven't read in the list of 5 above is the new Bola~no, which is in my briefcase now to take up this weekend. I've read and loved all the others, including Don Quijote (both in Spanish and English), War and Peace, and Ulysses.
All that said, thank you for taking the time to make your point.
And thank you for reading.
--Marie Arana

Posted by: aranam1 | November 13, 2008 5:01 PM

Yes, okay, I probably missed your point. In fact rereading the column, I certainly missed your point. My apologies. I've been banging my head against Infinite Jest recently, and I'm a little crabby. It is, as I don't quite find the others to be, a truly "daunting" book, but really wonderful too.

I suppose I feel a bit under siege. Anyone who loves reading great novels feels a bit under siege, no? I think I mistook your jaunty tone for more evidence of the way these books are made to seem prohibitive, somehow out of the reach of the common reader, which is something I'm happy to be and wish there were many more of.

So I do apologize. Must've woke up itching for a fight, and there was your column, and I "understood it too quickly." I'd remove it if I could, and request that you do so if it can be done.
I feel like a louse. Well, what I get for bein' trigger-happy. Sure do envy you reading Quixote in Spanish. Though I suspect it's hard to damage the book to badly. (Edith Grossman's translation made me deliriously happy.) I don't know a book that beats it.
Thanks for a swift and painless kick in the pants. I deserved harder.

Posted by: room237 | November 13, 2008 6:14 PM

Oh, I do appreciate your ardor for good books! It makes it all worthwhile.
And the fact that you bring up the inimitable, indefatigable Edith Grossman in your kind apology makes me very glad you got "crabby" in the first place.
Cheers to you,

--Marie Arana

Posted by: aranam1 | November 13, 2008 6:36 PM

Well, you're pretty sweet letting me off so easy.
Inre: Quixote... the odd thing is that I tried to read the book in my 30s and found it almost incomprehensible. By the time Grossman's translation appeared, I was 50, the very age of the titular knight-errant, and as I mentioned, I read it 4 times in a row. I thought maybe I'd never read another book again. I can't really know, although I've attempted some comparisons, how much Grossman's translation had to do with my adoring the book, but her rendering is crisp, passionate, just modern enough to keep the jokes flavorful, and the pages easy to turn. But I know that turning 50 had a lot to do with my ability to understand this remarkable book, so funny and wise; so human and moving. It just eclipsed my reading for an entire year.

And, to one of the points of your column, I bought six or seven copies. Several for me, because I liked reading a fresh copy, and some as gifts to friends who I hope will someday read it. The novel above all novels. But hard to see it maybe, until one's lived for awhile...

Posted by: room237 | November 13, 2008 7:13 PM

More to the point... I've got War & Peace on the shelf, but can never get past the first 70 or so pages. Gravity's Rainbow? Same story. I have actually purchased The Name of the Rose several times (the last few at used book sales) but never get past the first chapter and willingly hand it over if someone spots it on my bookshelf and begs to read it. These are aberrations, however, since I'm a prolific reader of all good literature and have usually found that if I can get past the first 100 pages of a difficult book I will finish it. Maybe I'll just have to look for another copy of Eco's brainbreaker at the next library book sale...

Posted by: kbockl | November 14, 2008 8:29 AM

Oh, I have every intention of reading the books I buy, even the thick, tough-looking books. I have no doubt they're wonderful. It's just that, between kids and a full-time job, it can be tough to really focus on any book, let alone "War and Peace." Sometimes, you want to read something short or relatively uncomplicated. And when you buy books incessantly, like I do, it's easy to pick something you may not have to expend as much of your brainpower on.

Having said that, after carting around "David Copperfield" and "Nicholas Nickleby" for 20 years, I've recently gotten around to reading them. I'm sorry I couldn't appreciate Dickens when I was a teenager, because I really find him to be a page-turner now. All this to get to my point that I will eventually read this books -- maybe in 20 years, but I'll get there.

Posted by: kleewrite | November 14, 2008 1:08 PM

Then there's the folks who read doorstoppers that write about doorstoppers. Since your post on the Post appeared, the number one topic on the Pynchon List [a long running virtual book club that's been posting for over a decade] has been discussion of doorstoppers. "Against the Day" is great fun by the way. It's almost as if Pynchon came up with 1085 stories, one for each page. Proust's "À la recherche du temps perdu" is the ultimate doorstopper and well worth the trip.

Posted by: robinlandseadel | November 17, 2008 9:52 AM

Nice column and interesting responses.

The first on the list, The Golden Notebook, brought back great memories, as I read it for a Brit. Lit. course in college. I read it very, very slowly and carefully, marking up every other page, and wrote a really long term paper on it. I forgot how long it is, but I did spend most of a semester immersed in it.

As for "Gravity's Rainbow" -- while there will always be a number of people who never finish it, there is I think a fairly interesting subclass of people who finish it once, twice or even three times, and still aren't real, real sure what it's all about, Alfie. Oh, sure, the big picture rubs off, and you learn to adjust to it's sudden surrealism, but just following the darned thing without major help from the experts continues to be a trial. Some, like room327, may find this struggle a day at the beach and I don't begrudge them the pleasure. Me, I sometimes wish it was a movie, so I could at least lean over to my neighbor and say "What country are we in now, and hey, where did the main character go all of a sudden?"

Take heart, potential readers: I seem to recall Pynchon's old professor, Vladimir Nabokov, confessed to giving up on it.

Regarding another door-stopper mentioned above: I'm reading Julie Rose's new and massively annotated translation of "Les Miserables," a large scale if somewhat superficial melodrama that remains just about as absorbing as it was when I was eighteen, with just the kind of over-the-top characters of pure good and pure evil that have made it such a popular Broadway delight. A great book? Probably not; Hugo is no Tolstoy -- he lacks the Russian master's intricacy of structure, his eye for character, his inspiration, and his genius. But he is a great storyteller, and "Les Miserables" is a great story.

So I suggest potential readers pick that one up again, because it's just the kind of long book people finish. Also, the Rose translation provides a total education in 19th Century French politics if you're willing to pursue the many, many footnotes (one 4-page chapter requires 87 of them over eight pages of text.)

Other quick thoughts: I envy anyone who reads "A Suitable Boy" for the first time. You're in for a month of reading pleasure, because it's a story that never lets up or lets you down.

Don DeLillo's "Underworld," on the other hand, is a grind.

Pynchon's "Against the Day" is, well, pretty damned entertaining, although you may find yourself consulting Wikipedia a lot if you're a little shaky on vector space, Riemann's hypothesis, and the 1908 Tunguska Event. Every Pynchon novel, like Joyce's "Ulysses" and a number of Faulkner's masterpieces, raises the question of just how hard a reader is supposed to work. They're books for literary wonks. I filled several notebooks before I finished with it, so I know of which I speak.

Posted by: rodneypwelch | November 17, 2008 2:34 PM

I am so glad to be part of a group of people who love to read but who fully admit they are unable/unwilling to finish certain big tomes. For YEARS, as I walk by them, I have been patting my lovely boxed sets of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past and Murasaki's Tale of Genji, although thanks to encouragement from Dirda on Books, I have started Muraskaki's book. And, guess what?! It's perfectly accessible...why did I wait so long? Good reading to you room237...I borrowed Infinite Jest from the college library where I work and now pat it on the head nightly...

Posted by: EdmontonBookworm | November 18, 2008 12:51 PM

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