The length of a book is no indication of its quality, but if you are looking for door-stoppers you won’t find any shortage in the Western literary canon. Although often listed as one of the world’s lengthiest novels, Gone with the Wind — at over 400,000 words — did not even make the top ten. From the great writers whose novels have been mainstays of literary syllabi to authors of modern literary
classics, many well-known novelists clearly did not agree with Shakespeare that brevity is the soul of wit.
10. Les Misérables
With a total count of over 510,000 words Victor Hugo’s seminal work is as weighty as its subject matter. Published in 1862 in French, it is considered one of the 19th century’s greatest novels and has since been translated into numerous languages and even adapted as a Broadway musical. The lengthy word count is understandable, given that the novel covers the lives of several characters and the passing of 17 years, from 1815 to the 1832 June Rebellion.
9. Voyna i mir (War and Peace)
Leo Tolstoy’s epic work is well-known for its length, although at 560,000 words it is not much longer than Les Misérables. Along with Anna Karenina, War and Peace is considered one of Tolstoy’s finest works and a highlight of world literature. In 2009, War and Peace was ranked in first place by Newsweek in its Top 100 Books list. Published in 1869, the novel uses five Russian aristocratic families to detail the events the led to the 1812 French invasion of Russia and the impact felt on Russian society of the time. The novel is known for its realism and Tolstoy’s attempts to find “truth” by merging fiction and history.
8. Infinite Jest
Published in 1996, David Foster Wallace’s dystopian novel uses 575,000 words to detail his vision of North America’s future. The novel is known for the intricacy of its narrative and the hundreds of explanatory endnotes that elaborate on the story. Time magazine considered the novel to be one of the 100 best English-language novels published since 1923 when it compiled the list in 2005. Furthermore, David Ulin, the LA Times book editor, considers Wallace "one of the most influential and innovative writers of the last 20 years."
7. A Suitable Boy
At 1,349 pages and over 590,000 words, Vikram Seth’s novel goes to great lengths to chronicle 18 months in the lives of four Indian families. While the titular plot deals with the attempts of a mother to find “a suitable boy” to marry her daughter, the novel uses this as a backdrop to explore and examine various national issues in India prior to the 1952 post-Independence election. Everything from caste issues to sectarianism to land reform is given alternatively satirical and earnest treatment. The novel was awarded both the Commonwealth Writers Prize for best book and the WH Smith Literary Award in 1994.
6. Le Vicomte de Bragelonne ou Dix ans plus tard (The Vicomte of Bragelonne: Ten Years Later)
Alexandre Dumas is most famous for his chronicles of D'Artagnan and the three musketeers. This 626,000-word novel, first published in serial form between 1847 and 1850, is the last of the three novels in the D’Artagnan Romances series, although English translations often divide the novel into three books — "The Vicomte de Bragelonne," "Louise de la Vallière," and "The Man in the Iron Mask." Dumas’ works have been adapted for stage and film, although a full adaptation of the entirety of this book would certainly be a test of endurance for cinema-goers.
5. Atlas Shrugged
It took Ayn Rand 645,000 words to complete her magnum opus. Atlas Shrugged was her last novel and the book in which she most clearly set out the ideals which she would develop into her philosophy of Objectivism. The novel’s theme, according to Rand, is "the role of man's mind in existence." Set in a dystopian near future, the book details the circumstances leading up to and consequences of mankind’s thinkers and innovators “going Galt,” or following the lead of John Galt in absenting themselves from a world which they feel parasitizes their efforts. The length of the work is unsurprising, given that a single speech by John Galt towards the end of the novel comes in at over 33,000 words.
4. Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (The Man Without Qualities)
Although unfinished, Robert Musil’s novel still comes in at well over 650,000 words and over 1,000 pages. Musil worked on the book from 1921 until his death 20 years later, leaving his family on the breadline. With over 20 characters in the setting of early 20th-century Vienna, no one theme dominates the work, although discussion on truth, opinion and the societal organization of ideas are found throughout the work. The novel was included in Le Monde’s list of the 100 greatest books of the 20th century.
Published in 1748, Samuel Richardson’s mammoth novel (it clocks in at over a million words) details a young woman’s desire for virtue, and her family’s interference with her efforts to lead a virtuous life. Over hundreds and hundreds of pages, Richardson explores Clarissa’s tragic experiences and the effects of her life on the characters around her. The work is an epistolary novel — that is, its events and plot are detailed through letters written by the various characters. The novel was well-received at the time and considered Richardson’s masterpiece. In modern times it has been adapted as a television mini-series.
L’Astrée, by Honoré d'Urfé, is often considered the single most influential work of French literature from the 17th century. Its 1,422,700 words are divided between 5,399 pages in sixty books, made up of forty stories in six parts. It is a pastoral novel, concerned with the love between a shepherd and a shepherdess, and the misfortunes which befall them in fifth-century Forez. It was hugely popular in royal courts on its publication, with kings and queens throughout Europe demanding its translation. It is still published today, abridged, in full, and even as a comic book.
1. À la recherche du temps perdu (Remembrance of Things Past)
Proust’s most prominent work, this novel is renowned both for its length, 1,500,000 words, and its author’s concept of involuntary memory. Through the experiences and life of the narrator, the novel explores concepts of memory, space and time, while condensing various literary styles and conventions. Proust worked on the novel for 13 years until his death in 1922. Innumerable novels have been influenced by Remembrance of Things Past, whether by way of homage or parody. The gargantuan length of the novel may cause the beginning to seem like a thing past when readers finally reach the concluding paragraphs.