It just took me a whole month to finish a book—Jonathan Franzen’s Great American Novel, Freedom—and man, what a great way to slide into fall.
That and tea: lots and lots of tea.
Fall is my favorite season of year, closely followed by Christmas (and yes, I count that as a season, not a holiday!). I have a side to me known as “The Elf,” and the Elf enjoys a spirit of generosity, cheer, and spontaneous good deeds. The Elf goes into high gear around October 1 through December 31. Many crafts are undertaken, many ambitious baked goods and complicated soups are crafted in my kitchen, and I start another scarf I won’t finish.
And of course, the fall and winter are perfect excuses to stay inside—all readers know this. I enjoyed how Freedom transported me from humid mid-September to the breezy, crisp mid-October, the chill of the AC morphed into the chilly air from my window. And so, I have been feeling a return to long novels. A few years ago, I read The Goldfinch, Outlander, and Flowers from the Storm all in a span of a few months. I was hooked on the bigger-is-better theory and read—or, let’s be honest, only acquired—many huge tomes, but the mad scramble to reach my Reading Challenge threw me off course.
Well, thanks, Jonathan Franzen, because I think I’m back in the big book groove! Recommended for savoring over a few weeks or months, huge novels (I’m thinking over 400 pages) are the equivalent of knitting a scarf over a few months (only, in my case, actually finishing them!). Let’s face it, for those of us who live in colder climates, some big outdoors project is likely not going to happen. So, in their place, I recommend Big Books.
Here are some of my favorites.
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt – 771 pages
Of course I’m going to recommend The Goldfinch (2013). It is, after all, my all-time favorite novel. This 770 page novel has it all wrapped up in a story about trauma, coming of age, art, and friendship. This novel is known as a bildungsroman, or a coming of age, following the protagonist, Theo Decker, from early adolescence into his late twenties as he tries to cope with the lingering trauma from his mother’s sudden death in a terrorist attack on a museum to the looming guilt and panic he feels after having stolen and kept a major painting from a minor Dutch painter in the aftermath of the attack. One of the reasons why I love this novel is it traces how early trauma can shape us and how finding closure can be the most elusive and most effective way of healing. I read this book in a week, but the next time I reread it, I’m going to linger up on Donna Tartt’s lush prose and intricate storytelling. It won the Pulitzer Prize, people! And with good reason.
A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin – 5,216 pages (first novel is 864 pages)
Look. Let’s be honest from the beginning. GRRM is highly unlikely to finish this series, and we might get a Brandon Sanderson Wheel of Time end to the supposed seven-novel epic. That’d be fine with me. But the five novels in A Song of Ice and Fire, the fantasy series that inspired HBO’s smash hit, Game of Thrones, is enough to occupy you for one fall and winter, probably even more than a year. Each one shows the events of the series, from dynastic war to religious imperialism to the horrifying White Walkers, through the eyes of many points of view. One of the things that GRRM is so good at doing is writing a scene. Each chapter, though there may be fifty of them or more, is almost cinematic. Plus, it’s easy to fly through a few chapters at once. These books are epic and full of adventure, vengeance, and conquest. I would recommend them to just about anyone. (And, after all, winter is coming.) Start with: A Game of Thrones.
Outlander by Diana Gabaldon – 896 pagesOutlanderdefies description. In my reader’s advisory class in my library science program and in my reader’s advisory textbook, we look at Outlander as a book that is a crossover hit, one that is a genrebending novel with something for everyone, and this is true. Outlander is historical fiction. No, it’s romance. No, it’s scienc fiction. Actually, it’s all of those things, which is what makes it such a great book to recommend to anyone. Even though this book is only the first in a series of eight plus novels, I think you could really read the first one and not the later novels—shocking blashpemy from Sarah, I know. I read Outlander in one hungry four-day stretch, and I did find it unputtownable, but this long novel shows how you can devote one chunk of your colder months to a book that gets the blood pressure up, that immerses you in Story. So I recommend the enormously entertaining book, Outlander, to just about anyone. And the Starz series is pretty good as well. So enjoy!
A Little Life by Hanya Yanigahara – 832 pages
This Man Booker finalist was the literary darling of 2015, and it’s easy to see why. Yanighara’s novel is huge, epic, all-encompassing…all by focusing on the intimate power of friendships. My best friends to this day are mostly from high school. Maybe it’s because I transferred from Columbia to Penn in college, or maybe it’s because we just click on a deep level, but having a small group of close friends has been a great joy and constant in my life. So I totally appreciate how A Little Life has such a narrow focus—tracing the friendship among four friends from college—that manages to pack so much in there, from trauma and love to coming of age in an urban setting and the art world, literary “literati” scene, and love, both platonic and romantic. This is a beautiful novel, though I will warn you it is difficult to read at times because it can get quite dark. Yet ultimately I found it hopeful and compelling. I don’t know many people who binge read this novel, but I do know how it has touched many readers, and I truly think it is a novel to savor. And hey, it’s finally out in paperback, so you won’t break your arms trying to get through the hardcover.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon – 704 pages
One of my all-time favorite novels is The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, and, like many of the books on this list, the novel truly has something for everyone. It has captured the attention and praise of many people I know who appreciate it’s highly readable style and themes like comic books, family, homosexuality, the definition of “heroism,” and the rise and aftermath of the Holocaust. The novel is big and big-hearted, and it won the Pulitzer Prize. It’s easy to see why. Chabon, who had gone on to have a bright career with hits like The Yiddish Policeman’s Unit and Telegraph Avenue, effortlessly pulls together the so-called Great American Novel. This is one of the most important novels of the new millennium, and a novel that I’d recommend for just about anybody.
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen – 608 pages
Well, reader, it seems only fitting that I conclude this list of long books to read in the fall and winter with Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, the novel that inspired this article. What to say about Freedom? It is another one of those highly readable novels that packs a bunch of themes into one Great American Novel. Franzen spares nobody and nothing with his sardonic wit, mercilessly satirizing everyone from liberals to the War on Terror, the hypocrisy of the left to masculinity, religion, and the new rich. But at its heart, Freedom is about family, love, and marriage. It also has one of the most satisfying ends to a novel that I’ve ever read. Technically this is the shortest novel on here, but it might be biggest and more epic in scope in its lens of America Today. The story of Patty and Walter Berglund is both devastating and divine. We all know someone like this Patty and Walter, whose dreams get tangled up in their quest to be “nice” “liberals.” Or even at its most basic level, to find the love of your life and fight for that relationship. At 597 ages, Freedom has the tiniest page count of any of these novels, yet it is just as much a Big Novel, one you can’t avoid, one you can’t put down.