A question posted by Penguin Books Australia in 2017 popped up in my Facebook timeline memories: What’s the longest book you’ve ever read? Back then, I’d responded Gone with the Wind. But after sharing the old post on the ABC Book Club, I realised there are longer books, and I’d read one of them.
I loaned Margaret Mitchell’s epic from my school library when I was thirteen. And because Gone with the Wind is so long, I had to keep re-loaning it. But when the school year ended, and I returned the book to the library for the last time, I still had 100 pages to read.
And so I never knew how the story ended for Scarlet O’Hara and Rhett Butler — until many (adult) years later when I saw the movie classic on TV. Even after watching the movie, I always thought I’d go back and finish reading Gone with the Wind. But as Scarlet said, tomorrow is another day. And my “tomorrows” got taken up with work, travels and life.
The ABC Book Club
The Penguin Books post I shared with fellow Book Club members proved popular. Not so much with Likes (there were around 50), but it generated 310 comments. And a long list of long books.
Gone with the Wind was on the list, and, of course, War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. Not including non-fiction works and the Bible, here is a list of the top 10 compiled from the post responses:
- À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time, first translated into English as Remembrance of Things Past) by Marcel Proust (1,267,069 words)
- Poor Fellow My Country by Xavier Herbert (852,000 words)
- A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth (593,674 words)
- Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand (561,996 words)
- War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (561,304 words)
- Les Miserables by Victor Hugo (530,982 words)
- The Stand by Stephen King (514,827 words)
- Shōgun by James Clavell (421,370 words)
- Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell (418,053 words)
- The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley (416,000 words)
At the top of the *lengthy list* is Proust’s hefty tome at 1,267,069 words, the Guinness World Record holder for the longest novel. However, the record is expressed in characters (including spaces), and the tome is published as a multi-volume novel.
Second is Xavier Herbert’s 1975 Miles Franklin winner Poor Fellow My Country, at 852,000 words. It’s also the longest ever published Australian novel.
And third, Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, at 593,674 words, was probably the most mentioned and loved long book in the responses.
Also among the nominations were lengthy series like Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien (576,459 words), Harry Potter (1,084,170 words) by J.K. Rowling, and The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant by Stephen Donaldson (2,062,000 words). But I decided not to list them with the standalone books in my top 10. Having not read it, I can’t say if the same argument could be used for Proust.
Shogun by James Clavell
A couple of Book Club members said Shōgun by James Clavell was the longest book they had read. And this novel sits 8th in the top 10 list at 421,370 words, ahead of 9th placed Gone with the Wind at 418,053 words.
It’s funny how memory works. After seeing Shōgun in their responses, I recalled reading it in 1983. But maybe I’d repressed the (guilty) memory?
In 1983, I was a twenty-one-year-old backpacker from Perth living in a share-flat in Sydney. An Irish backpacker I knew was working as a nanny at a Harbourside mansion. And one day, she invited me over to see the Harbour views. As a starved book lover, I was more interested in the titles on display in a large bookcase in the mansion. My friend said I could borrow a book, and I selected Shōgun.
I only remember an outline of Clavell’s tale of the shipwrecked English sailor who learns and adopts Japanese customs amid brutal battles for power between feudal warlords and samurai.
However, like the shipwrecked sailor, I learned about Japan’s rich culture and history from Shōgun. It may have been superficial, but I haven’t forgotten the Japanese greeting, Konnichi wa.
I had intended to return Shōgun after reading it. However, as happens with backpackers, I lost contact with my Irish friend. And almost four decades on, the “borrowed” book still sits in my bookcase.
A book yay big!
A friend in England once asked me what type of books I like to read. “A book about yay big,” I replied, holding my thumb and forefinger about three-quarters of an inch apart.
Looking at my bookcase, most of my books fall into that category, especially among the novels. There’s no Proust, Poor Fellow My Country, or A Suitable Boy. Not even War and Peace!
But there is the yellowed 1976 Coronet Books edition of Shōgun. And this, not Gone with the Wind, is the longest book I’ve read.
© 2021 Robert Fairhead
N.B. You might also like to read another blog post about My First Book.
Note: This post originally appeared on the Tall And True writers’ website.
Welcome to the blog posts and selected writing of a dad and dog owner, Robert Fairhead. A writer-editor at the Tall And True writers' website, Robert also writes and narrates episodes for the Tall And True Short Reads podcast. In addition, his book reviews and other writing have appeared in various print and online media, and he's published several collections of short stories. Please see Robert's profile for further details.