Really. Big. Books.

Beach reading for the long weekend

There is something about really long books that I find irresistible. The longer the better. As a bibliophile, Really. Long. Books. are almost a fetish with me. I suppose that part of it is simply that when I am reading a good book, I never want it to end. I find myself looking to see how much more I have left before it is all over. With a really big book (which I will hereafter refer to as an RBB), I might be 500 pages in and still have 600 pages to go. That is always heartening, especially when I am enjoying what i am reading. If I read a review of a book and somewhere it mentions its RBB-ness, positively or negatively, I immediately have to investigate.

What constitutes an RBB? The answer is different for everyone. For me, when a book hits at least 700 or 800 pages, it’s an RBB. I was thinking about RBBs because this evening, I began reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, which at 1,079 pages, certainly meets my RBB criteria.

RBBs can be challenging for a number of reasons. They are so long that I sometimes make it further into an RBB than I might a book of normal length before deciding it doesn’t work for me. RBBs are an investment, but they also require trust. You have to have a good sense of what you think you’ll like when you invest time in an RBB. When an RBB works out, it is great, but it also takes longer to read than your normal-sized book. In the time it would take me to read Infinite Jest, for instance, I could read five normal-sized books. That makes for another challenge, one I’ve often heard from magazine editors when accepting or rejecting a novelette or novella: is this long story worth the space that two or three shorter stories might take? Or, for my RBB, is the book worth the time that three or four other books might take?

Not every RBB I’ve tried works out. Earlier this year I tried reading Gödel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hafstader, which, at just over 700 pages, barely qualifies as an RBB. But I couldn’t get through it.

Some RBBs I’ve read several times. Stephen King’s It is one example.That book is over 1,000 pages and I have read it at least five times.

I love RBBs, but there is something I love even more than an RBB: a series of RBBs. These are not easy to come across, but late last year, I began reading Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archives series. The first book in the series, The Way of Kings is just over 1,000 pages. Each subsequent book gets longer and longer until the forth and most recent is over 1,200 pages. And there are supposed to be 10 books in this series when it is finished! I’ve read the first three so far, and will eventually get around to the fourth.

There are also series of RBBs that are nonfiction. Perhaps my favorite is Will and Ariel Durant’s Story of Civilization which is an 11-volume history of human civilization. The first book came out in 1935 and the last in 1975. Many of the books in this series are in the 800-900 page range, with the forth installment, The Age of Faith, being the longest at nearly 1,200 pages. The 11 volumes total 13,549 pages. I’ve read the first six books in the series.

Some RBBs I’ve collected but not yet read. I got them because they were RBBs but also because the subjects were fascinating and I was amazed that there could be such detail in a subject to warrant the length. There are books that sit on my shelves, calling to me now and then, but which I won’t likely get to until I have time to concentrate on them more fully. Two examples: Stephen Jay Gould’s The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, which comes in at around 1,400 pages; and Bert Hölldobler and Edward O. Wilson’s The Ants, which is an RBB both in page count and stature. The book is enormous!

I don’t know if I will make it through Infinite Jest or not. I know it doesn’t qualify for what many people consider to be beach reading, but that’s what I am taking with me to the beach. There’s nothing quite like sun, surf, sand, and a good RBB to keep your mind occupied while your kids are bury you in the sand.

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9 comments

  1. I read Infinite Jest earlier this year and while I found the book fascinating it was a hard one to get through. I have been told by numerous people it gets better the second and third time you read. I don’t think I will pick up again anytime soon but have placed it back on the bookshelf for it to be read again someday.

    1. Roberta, I have heard the same thing. The book is a tough read but I agree it is fascinating, in the way not being able to look away from a train wreck is fascinating, at least so far.

  2. Always my most liked posts of yours where I keep switching between tabs. One tab for the post and the other Amazon. And I can relate to your experience with “Gödel, Escher, Bach” which was gifted to me years ago and it had moved with me already three times and every time I unpacked it from a box, I set it aside to read it but never made it past the first 50 pages or so.
    Will Durant on the other hand is something I want to read on a quiet and rainy evening when I am on my own. I recently bought a leatherbound issue from the 1950s, I assume. It has no publication date but was printed in Switzerland for a German publisher and was mostly the case in post-war Germany until the 1960s. And that’s what I love about old issues of books. There is not only history in them but on them as well.

    1. Will Durant is one of my favorites. Some of what he has written in his histories is dated (I mean, the first volume was published in 1935), but his style of writing is absolutely wonderful to read, and the muted humor that shows up in some of his phrases is just wonderful.

  3. I have always enjoyed the posts you write about reading and the books you are reading. A little while back you listed some magazine articles you enjoyed during the week/month. You had asked if anyone was interested in seeing more of the that and I would. Thanks for doing what you do with this site.

  4. Hi Jamie,
    As always, a wonderful books related blog post from you.
    Do you read only hard copies or e-books?

    1. Thank, Vaibhav! The short answer is, I read all formats. For practical reasons, my preference is audio books. But your question made me think on this a little so if you come back tomorrow (Thursday), I’ve written a whole post on my book format preferences which goes into some detail on what I prefer and why.

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