Is it really almost the end of the year? As I started packing for home, I was asked to recommend a few good, long books to read over the languid week between Christmas and New Year's. I looked at my bookshelves and almost couldn’t pick — there were too many, and each one evoked a different moment of holiday calm or chaos. In the end, I found nine that fit the bill. So whether you're wedged into a coach-class seat or sprawled out on your parents' couch, consider this list of gargantuan books perfect for savoring over the last days of 2012.
With the star-studded film arriving in theaters, the trip home is the perfect time to open up Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel. Its not-so-Puritanical issues still resonate today, as Anne Hathaway (who plays Fantine) made clear in an awkward interview with Matt Lauer: “I’m sorry that we live in a culture that commodifies sexuality of unwilling participants, which brings us back to Les Mis, because that's what my character is. She is someone who is forced to sell sex to benefit her child because she has nothing, and there's no social safety net. So let's get back to Les Mis.”
Though I personally prefer The Iliad, Odysseus’s homecoming in The Odyssey is one of the strangest and most vivid in the history of literature — a return riddled with stories and myths (including a perilous passage between Scylla and Charybdis and a visit with the dead) that none of us could hope to match around the dinner table with our families.
In the welter of holiday presents and unexpected reunions, I’m often reminded of Pynchon. Blending together bananas and Fay Wray, erections and rockets, Thomas Pynchon’s colossus subsumes World War II and the wild lives of the people who kissed and killed during those turbulent years. There’s a dive down a toilet that gets reenacted in Trainspotting, an immortal lightbulb called Byron, and a healthy dose of linguistic pyrotechnics — all of which makes it easier to forget the post-holiday mess yet to be cleaned up.
This one is well-known for its sheer length, but less so for its deep and engrossing humanity. With a cold, clear sky outside and the bustle of family and friends inside, I’d like nothing more than to reread the bracing moment when Prince Andrei, having fallen in battle, sees “nothing but the sky — the lofty sky, not clear yet still immeasurably lofty, with gray clouds gliding slowly across it.”
Snow, I hope, will be falling as the year draws to a close, providing the perfect segue into the opening pages of Péter Nádas’s masterpiece, set in mid-to-late twentieth-century Berlin and Budapest: “In that memorable year when the famous Berlin wall came down, a corpse was discovered in the Tiergarten not far from the graying marble statue of Queen Louise. This happened a few days before Christmas.” I'll be opening the book again this weekend.
If you're not dreaming of a white Christmas, take the plunge into the Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño's magnum opus. In one week, I read a thrillingly open-ended story about a disappeared writer, and in the process I took in the most bone-chilling reports of the Ciudad Juárez femicides and some beautiful passages of “long intervals of silence that not even the rain could disturb.”
I used to read Murakami before sleeping, and “Que-teen-eighty-four” was my companion for weeks as I sank into bed each night, exhausted after long days of polite conversation. How much nicer it was, really, to read about a hired assassin and her accidental discovery of a world with two moons, and to slip into Murakami’s soporific vignettes of men and women who, "like a veteran fisherman standing in the bow of his boat, [read] the ominous confluence of two currents."
Anatomy of Melancholy
When I pack to leave again, I go through a checklist of things I might forget: my alarm clock, the extra pair of shoes I never wore. Not everything makes sense, but it all somehow relates to my life. And sometimes as I page through Robert Burton’s thick compendium of opinions about melancholia, I feel like I’m reading someone else’s miscellany, only far more powerfully written: a lucid index of human experience.
Remembrance of Things Past / In Search of Lost Time
As the new year begins, I always think of the nature of memory — eternally present, yet reaching ever father back into the past. Memory, Marcel Proust’s artistic medium: his novels swirl the past and the present in a single moment of experience. For years I’ve wanted to climb this Mount Everest of novels, but I've never made it past volume one. Now, with a GoodReads group dedicated to tackling the summit, I’ll be taking on all seven.
These aren’t the only doorstops deserving of your time — Ulysses and Infinite Jest await readers with the free hours and mental space — but every one of these books will make the end of the year (and, let's be honest, the beginning of the next) a genuine pleasure.