Winter vacation, school holidays … time for a novel. Why not try a blockbuster?
War and Peace springs naturally to mind: 1,300 pages; romance; great events. Indeed, war and peace: cavalry charges, heroic retreats. And the home front, a Russia whose aristocracy faces the traditional problems of marriages, money, and serfs, and the new questions raised by that modern force, Napoleonic France.

It’s all there in the very long Russian movie version, as well. If War and Peace is just too many foreign names, too much happening, too many words: Anna Karenina isn’t Tolstoy light, but it is shorter.

Arguably, Cervantes wrote the first modern novel (perhaps Homer’s Odyssey is the first novel). And Don Quixote is still one of the best, waiting to be read at one or more levels: humor, picturesque adventure, bigger questions about human nature and behavior. Don Quixote’s quest eventually became a successful musical: “Man of La Mancha”.

Hugo’s Les Miserables also became a musical, though turning those 1,200 pages into song must have been difficult. For readers who prefer a more brutal realism, there’s Zola. For those who yearn for swashbuckling, Dumas’ Count of Monte Cristo, or The Three Musketeers (as Umberto Eco pointed out, really the story of the fourth).

19th Century English novelists wrote long books, and lots of them. (When Anthony Trollope finished a novel halfway through his daily word budget, he took another sheet of paper and began another.) Dickens was among the best, and certainly the most famous. Bleak House has more complexity and depth than some other titles, but it’s still a page-turner (and a crime novel), not to mention a movie and a well-received miniseries.

Melville’s masterpiece is surely the American blockbuster. (Huckleberry Finn is too short.) Moby Dick marathons, pre-Covid, brought hundreds of fans, equipped with copies and sometimes with sleeping bags, to participate in continuous readings of the novel. (Mad magazine parodied the idea of a musical version.)

It may not be for the young; many of us have gotten more out of recent second or third readings. If the whaling details or the allegory are too off-putting, there’s Melville light: Typee and Omoo on Pacific islands, Redburn’s sail to London, Whitejacket in the navy.

David R Jones is on vacation until January, re-reading Don Quixote.

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