By Vikas Datta
Someone once quipped that the “universal aptitude for ineptitude makes any human accomplishment an incredible miracle” and devoted book readers know it too well. Any of the (sadly-diminishing) tribe would be familiar with responses of wonder over the fact that they manage to read even a modestly-long work in a day or two. Wonder what these amazed people would make of a book termed a “doorstopper”?
“Doorstoppers” are books so thick and heavy that they can be used to keep doors open — or even be a literary weapon, literally. The irrepressible TVTropes.org, which also suggests they can be a substitute for barbells or an opportunity for orthopaedists, says “Proper Doorstoppers” (also known as “Tree Killers”) should be over 500 pages at least, with a normal typeface — at least 10 point.
A distinction needs to be drawn with “Omnibus” editions, which usually bring a trilogy, or complete works of an author into one. While technically a “doorstopper”, they are not, for this term is for one particular work, which per TVTropes, “can and will cause massive muscle fatigue when reading while holding the book in your hands”.
While religious scriptures — or their exegeses — dictionaries, encyclopaedias, most textbooks, especially computer programming, accountancy, biology, et al, are doorstoppers, let’s see some notable examples from both classical and popular literature.
Though English has some of the most well-known examples — Charles Dickens, Margaret “Gone With the Wind” Mitchell, J.R.R. Tolkien (save “The Hobbit” and “The Silmarillion”), J.K. Rowling (“The Order of the Phoenix” onwards), the phenomenon is present in literary traditions across the world — Arabic, Chinese, French, Russian, among many others and much old.
Marcel Proust’s “A la Recherche du Temps Perdu” (“Remembrance of Things Past” or “In Search of Lost Time” now, 1913-27 in French) about his childhood and adulthood experiences in late 19th century/early 20th century France, holds the Guinness records title of longest novel with its one and a half million words. The author was still adding to it and revising the last three volumes at the time of his death, leading to the possibility it could have well emerged longer.
However, Mark Leach’s “Marienbad My Love” (2013), about a tortured (mentally) author on a desert island reaching out to a married ex-lover to help him produce a science fiction film, claims to be the world’s longest novel, with over 17 million words, over 10,000 pages across 17 volumes. The novel’s title is itself 6,700 words long, it contains a 4.4-million-letter noun as well as a three million-word-long sentence.
Persian poet Ferdowsi’s (or Firdausi/Fardusi) “The Shahnameh”, about Iranian history from the world’s creation to the Islamic age, in an abridged English prose translation runs close to 1,000 pages and, according to the introduction, a current full English verse translation is nine volumes long.
Japanese epic “The Tale of Genji”, varies by language and translator, but one copy is 1,090 pages long. And many classic Chinese novels are in the 2,000-page range — Luo Guanzhong’s 14th century epic “Romance of the Three Kingdoms”, about war, turmoil, and bloodshed in the eponymous period (188-280 AD) runs to over 2,300 pages.
So does the 16th century “Journey to the West” about Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang’s pilgrimage to India to study Buddhism and obtain accurate copies of religious texts and the exploits of his three supernatural co-travellers and protectors, especially “The Monkey King”, while Cao Xueqin’s 18th century “Dream of the Red Chamber”, about the decline of a noble family is shorter — at only 1,800-odd pages.
Russians were quite famous for this At 1,200 pages, Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”, about Russian nobility before and during Napoleon’s invasion, is a prime example, while Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” is well over 500 pages and “The Brothers Karamazov” anything between 720 to 1,013 pages, depending on the translation. It must, however, be noted that the authors were paid by the page.
Another notable one is Ivan Goncharov’s “Oblomov” (1859), which just clocks in a doorstopper with translations spanning from around 500 to 550 pages, but the entire first part, over 50 pages, just describes the title character trying to get out of his bed — and on to a chair.
French authors too remain masters — Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables”, is affectionately called “The Brick” by its admirers, and has a detailed description of a crack in the wall, through which a character looks, spanning a page and a half — in the condensed version.
Indians too figure, with Vikram Seth’s “A Suitable Boy” being over 1,500 pages and Vikram Chandra’s “Sacred Games” at around 1,100.
Though, technology has now enabled even a huge doorstopper to easily fit on a light, handy, smartphone or e-reader, determined bookworms from the dawn of publishing to well into the 20th century — and even now — never hesitated to carry around weighty tomes on journeys, to work and otherwise, giving the phrase “active readers” a whole new meaning. Whoever says book reading is a lazy activity, should try to read one of these.
(Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at email@example.com