When I was 12 or 13, my grandmother took me to our local Barnes & Noble and told me I could pick out any book I wanted. Considering myself a savvy individual, I used the opportunity to buy the biggest book I could find: Rebecca West’s 1941 Yugoslavian ethnography, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, which ran well over 1,000 pages.
When we got home, I put Black Lamb on my overflowing “to read” shelf in my bedroom, which was strategically positioned so that every night as I was falling asleep, the last thing I would see was the pile of books I was looking forward to reading next. Over the years, I chipped away at all of Black Lamb‘s neighbors, but it remained on the shelf — right up until I moved away, got my own apartment, and my childhood bedroom was converted into the guest room, West’s magnum opus relegated to a box somewhere in the garage.
Every reader has their Black Lamb, that one spectacularly large novel that you feel like you really should get around to, and maybe even are excited for, but just keep … putting off. That’s why we have December: There is no better time of year to finally read a gargantuan book.
I may never have gotten around to Black Lamb specifically, but starting in high school I committed to reading one large book every winter. My project began with Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, and subsequently has included classics like Moby-Dick, War and Peace, and Middlemarch. Sometimes the books I pick aren’t even that long, but are intimidating for other reasons: One year I chose Åsne Seierstad’s haunting 544-page One of Us, about the 2011 attack in Norway that left 77 people dead, and another year I went with Morrissey’s nearly 500-page Autobiography, which was daunting for entirely different reasons.
December is cold, dark, and often stressful, which is also what makes it the best time of year to commit to a long book. Winter’s bitterly cold mornings and early evenings trap you indoors with the time for uninterrupted reading. Travel over the holidays also leads to jet-legged hours awake after everyone else in the house gone to sleep, or is not yet up. Likewise, there is no better diversion from family stress than escaping into the same book repeatedly. While summer has the reputation of being the most reader-friendly time of year due to the influx of leisure time, it necessitates a different kind of book, a gripping page-turner that you can dog-ear or stuff in a bag on a road trip. Apologies to David Foster Wallace, but I grew restless with Infinite Jest when I tried to read it one spring, ultimately abandoning it to spend more time outside; I might have faired better if I’d waited for winter, when I have more patience for footnotes.
That being said, I’m sympathetic toward people who are down to the wire on their yearly reading goals and find themselves scrambling this month instead to read the shortest novels in existence to pad their counts. I tend to be the opposite sort of person myself, setting wildly ambitious reading goals in January that I fail to clear by a dozen books or more, so my end-of-year reading project serves as a kind of salve for my pride. Finishing the year with a massive book means you go out on a bang — and, if you’re a slow reader and the book takes you well into January, February, or the spring to finish, then you start your next year impressively, as well.
There are other advantages to devoting yourself to a long book in December. For one thing, it is a wholly different kind of experience than opting for regular-length books: “It’s when you reach 800 or 900 pages and linger in the world of one mind for weeks or months that you feel the effects of sustained immersion,” writes the National Post‘s Calum Marsh, adding that the “difficulty is essential to the endeavor.” For another, the feeling of accomplishment when you finally reach, say, the epilogue of Moby-Dick, is unparalleled.
You don’t have to pick one of the Great White Manspread books either. George Eliot’s Middlemarch, one of the earliest books I read in my project, runs 880 pages; Doris Lessing’s 1,228-page Canopus in Argos: Archives, Roberto Bolaño’s 912-page 2666, and Vikram Seth’s 1,488-page A Suitable Boy are other options. You could tackle a set of books as well, such as Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series, or Karl Ove Knausgård’s six-part My Struggle. There are plenty of long books to choose from this year alone: The 1,280-page Catholic School, a semi-autobiographical account of the 1975 Circeo massacre by the Italian author Edoardo Albinati, Neal Stephenson’s 880-page speculative fiction epic Fall; or, Dodge in Hell, or Matthew Sturgis’ more than 700-page biography of Oscar Wilde.
Myself, I’ll be beefing up my wrist muscles this winter with Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport, which might be best described as a critically acclaimed 426,100-word sentence. But while I’m back home over Christmas, I’m going to spend some time rooting around in the garage. I think I know what box Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is buried in.
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