The Encyclopedic Novel: That Really Long Book You Talk About Knowingly, but Have Never Finished Reading


07/17/2014 by Stephen Silke

It seems that certain writers get to a point in their careers where they can’t stop writing–and from what I can guess from the resulting novels–a point in their careers where editors stop editing them. They strive to capture one or two cultural zeitgeists comprehensively and it results in the encyclopedic novel, the long-form way a writer can experiment with a grand epoch, eschew convention, and dive seriously into one or multiple consciousnesses, and swim as deep as they can into the ink, even unto exhaustion.

dogs and big books are fun and hard to hold (up)

Like reading an encyclopedic novel.

Here are a few recommendations (links are to my pages that contain blog reviews of the mentioned novel).

Ulysses —  This is the great stream-of-conciousness novel. It’s funny, full of wordplay, epic, colorful, and random–and its beauty and crassness have puzzled, turned on, and turned off more than a couple generations.

Moby-Dick — An encyclopedia masquerading as a novel about all things whaling and about obsessive revenge.

Infinite Jest   — THE novel of the nineties. I haven’t read anything more visceral and jaw-droppingly shocking that this book. Hilarious, stylistically fun, experimental, unredeemably offensive, and heart-breakingly tragic.

Gravity’s Rainbow — Could anything more be said on the topic beyond this novel’s portrayals of depravity vis-a-vis the parabolic arc of a missle, and the heinousness of that which it effects? This tome docs the missile race of a bygone era with a hint of flower-childish churlishness.

Les Miserables — The compendium on poverty in Paris, and the poverty caused when one cannot extend forgiveness. Being poor is more than a pecuniary affliction. A full, rich life must be imbibed wherever you are. The big-hearted Victor Hugo is out to make everyone who reads this into one who forgives and one who longs with craven rapacity for forgiveness.

Anna Karenina — Be cured of longing for who and what is not yours (through a truly astonishing page count).

Now here I beg forgiveness: I’ve left out War and Peace, Underworld, The Brothers Karamazov, and IQ84. Why? Because I simply haven’t read them yet.

In sum, as a mind-expanding reading experience, I turn to the encyclopedic novel time and again. It is a format which affects how I think–maybe sometimes for the worse–but also teaches me much that I previously did not know.

We should not balk at the length, we should be thankful for the superfluidity of words.


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