Fifteen Thousand Pages in Three Minutes


Roberto Bolaño’s überbook inspires a speed-read through literary history.


2666 by Roberto Bolaño (893 pages)
Intelligence: Average.
Character: Epileptic.
Scholarship: Sloppy.
Storytelling ability: Chaotic.
Prose style: Chaotic.
Use of language: Chaotic.
Overall: Phenomenal.

Ulysses by James Joyce (644 pages)
It’s a good book as well as a great book, but I resent its mandatory presence on lists like this one.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (865 pages)
Plot: Wife strays, is punished. Another couple finds true love in the country.
What Tolstoy does: Make every character, every thought and feeling, everything in the world come fully, wonderfully alive. For example, there’s the hunting scene. You may, like me, have never hunted or cared about hunting, but you will feel how these young men feel that fine Russian morning and love it.
Personal note: I went to college in the late 80s and early 90s and learned that canons are nothing but hierarchical power structures, etc. Then I read Anna Karenina and learned that some novels are better than all the other novels. Sorry! They’re just better.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (1,455 pages)
Point: We think Great Men are the actors of history, but they are as bumbling and clueless as everyone else. None of us knows what we are really doing, in war or in peace.
Action movie or chick flick?: Both.
Pleasant surprise: Despite the book’s length, Tolstoy’s lightning-fast characterizations. “The Countess was a woman of about forty-five with a thin, Oriental type of face, who looked worn out from childbearing; she had given birth to twelve.” The blurry details (“about,” “looked”) only make it more real. Or an unattractive woman reads a compliment in a letter: “Her eyes, always sad, now gazed with particular hopelessness at the reflection in the glass. ‘She flatters me,’ thought the Princess. But Julie did not flatter her friend: the Princess’s eyes, large, deep, and luminous (at times rays of warm light seemed to radiate from them), were really so beautiful that very often, in spite of the plainness of her face, they gave her an allure greater than beauty. But the Princess never saw the lovely expression of her own eyes, the look they had when she was not thinking of herself. As with everyone, her face assumed an unnaturally strained, ugly expression as soon as she looked in a glass.”

Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon (760 pages)
Plot: Everything is connected. You’re not paranoid if you’re right.
Worth reading?: Yes.
Do you have a prayer of understanding it?: No, except for the songs and the dirty jokes.
Internet celebrity analogue: Nate Silver. You need to be a megadork to even pretend to keep up, or you can just sit back and watch the man work.
Factoid: Main character Tyrone Slothrop’s name is an anagram of “sloth or entropy.”

Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon (773 pages)
Plot: Titular heroes measure lines, arcs, Venus. Much faux-archaic Spelling, Capitaliz’d words, and Punctuation,— historical figures,— characters named Aunt Euphrenia and Revd Cherrycoke, talking dogs, mechanical ducks,— &c.&c.
Ranking: Pynchon’s best novel, believe it or not. M&D’s friendship is the warmest, richest relationship in his books; the eighteenth century is just as complex and wacky but not as dark as the twentieth.
Factoid: Pynchon designed the cover and chose the perfect font for the & himself.
Funniest joke: Mason meets Amelia, dress’d in all black from Boots to Bonnet because she’s in New-York, where other Customs prevail. Like many feisty urban teenagers she says “like” all the time, but, being of the 18th Century, she instead says “as”: “I’m, as, ‘But I like Black!’”

Clarissa by Samuel Richardson (1,499 pages)
Of the books on this list, the most: evil.
Plot: Alas! [back of hand to forehead] Most ludicrous aspect: It’s all in letters, even the action scenes. As in: Dear friend, While I sit in my Room the Seducer approaches! He is burst through the door! He has almost reach’d my writing desk now!!! Etc.
Why it matters: By far the most popular and influential early novel. All American sexual, religious, and emotional sentimentalities were invented in this book. Really. That’s how twisted it is.
Worth reading?: Fuck no.
The one awesome detail: Our heroine, drugged and raped while unconscious, feels sinful anyway and longs for death. The rakish characters wonder what her problem is. She pre-orders her own coffin, carves little flowers and verses of poetry all over it, and keeps it in her bedroom, “near the window like a harpsichord”!

The Man without Qualities by Robert Musil (1,770 pages)
Title: Coolest.
TMwQ’s name: Ulrich.
Plot: It’s 1913 in Vienna and they are trying to plan peace celebrations for the following year because they don’t know World War I is about to start. Also, there’s this slacker. And a serial killer named Moosbrugger.
Point: Irony, and not in that scare-quote finger-bunnies way. Everything is an utterly misguided failure and they don’t know it but you do.
Takeaway: Committee work is exactly like doing nothing with your life.
Edition: Try to get the two-volume hardcover boxed set, with Musil’s big ol’ head spread across the spines.
Tip: Skip Part III and the extras (all of vol. 2).

A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell (2,948 pages)
Plot: You go about your business, you meet and do things with people, and you never know who will turn out to be important or unimportant in your life until much later.
Of the books on this list, the most: quick and pleasant. Each vol. takes only a few hours. Lots of hilarious titles of imaginary books by the fictional characters.
Also the most: deeply social, interpersonal. The characters’ lives are tuned to everyone else’s. The most English. Excellent use of the pronoun “one.”
Example: The narrator’s true love (vol. 2) disappears from his life. She comes up to him years later (vol. 10) and “wanted to take another look at a former lover or—far more probable, when one came to think of it—was curious, as ladies who have had an inclination for a man so often are, regarding the appearance and demeanor of his wife.”
Opposite of: Near-anagram Saul Bellow. Powell aristocratically loathes living by the will; Bellow exults in rascals with schemes.
Line to use at cocktail parties: “It was Widmerpool!”

Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust (3,294 pages)
Is it really as good as everyone says?: Yes. Literature’s great cathedral of the human imagination.
Summary in ten words or less: Spazz can find happiness only in his own head.
Volumes: 2 is the best. 5 and 6 are the worst. 1 and 7 are great. When you put it down for a while—everyone does; it took me 14 years to finish—pick it up where you left off, don’t start over.
If you can’t handle 3,294 pages: “Overture” and “Combray,” the first 200 pages, are the length of a normal novel. Those chapters alone give pretty much the whole Proust experience.


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Damion Searls reads a lot and has five books due out in 2009: an abridgement of Thoreau's Journal; translations of Rilke, Proust, and a lost Holocaust novella; and a book of short stories called What We Were Doing and Where We Were Going. Trade book tips with him at [email protected] More from this author →