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Winter Reading Challenge: Here are a Few Big Book Recommendations For Long Dark Nights

They’re called many names: doorstopper, spider killer, seat booster. You don’t have to read a big book to join our Winter Reading Challenge on Beanstack but, if you can muster up the concentration, the dead of winter is a great time to dig into a big o’le book. Here’s a short list of five of my favorite big books (that I’ve actually read cover to cover and have the lived experience of the reading journey to recommend). I realize after making this list that it’s entirely composed of male writers—and mostly white males. Which says something about doorstopper books as a whole and myself as a reader/recommender. Let me know what I’m missing, what you think and share your own favorite big books!

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.
Little Brown & Co. (1996). 1079 pages.

Full disclosure: I owned this book for 20+ years before I finally managed to read it. I carried the massive paperback through apartment after apartment and into my current home. I knew the first scene very well. Every few years I would pick up the novel with a sense of purpose, a drive and a determination to finish; only to have it all peter-out after the first few pages. It wasn’t until I borrowed an ebook version that I was able to get moving. It felt like I’d put the blinders on and could make progress because I was digesting the book in more manageable chunks. I wasn’t feeling the weight of all that was to come every time I picked it up. Which maybe circumvented part of Wallace’s original point, to make a weird unwieldy but beautiful thing that people have to reckon with in a ridiculous way––like the feeling you get when you’re hauling back and forth from the main narrative to the copious endnotes (which are all critical for your understanding of the book)(of course).  I read both the ebook and the paperback depending on which format seemed most palatable at the time. About a week after I lost the paperback somewhere in my house. It’s not easy to lose a thousand plus page novel, but I did. I tore my bookshelves apart looking for it to no avail. I had been taking notes in the paperback like the folks at Infinite Summer suggested (and by the way, you don’t have to read this alone––in fact, you probably shouldn’t––this webform was infinitely helpful, ugh, pun intended) so I was grieved. Grieved enough that I bought a new paperback hardcopy (with Tom Bissell’s excellent introduction, that my old copy didn’t have). About a month after that I had to move a bookshelf in my living room to get in new furniture and I found the original which had slid behind a row of books but not far enough down to be visible on a lower shelf. So I have two copies of this massive book and an ebook. And I’ve written a pretty long paragraph about how much I liked the book without telling you a thing about it. And I think that is all for the best. I feel sure it’s what DFW would have wanted.

Annals of the Former World by John McPhee.
FSG. (1998) 695 pages.

Science as it was meant to be written about—by an English major. This book also languished on my read ambition pile for a very long time. It wasn’t until I convinced my fellows at the Non-Fiction Book club to read this book that I actually got down and made the full journey. It’s hard as a mere mortal in a fast paced world to understand the concept of deep time on anything close to a visceral level—but this book will get you there. It is truly a humbling experience reading this book and contemplating the vastness of geologic time of earth through scientific observation. The book is also something of a road trip, which is welcome in this time of limited travel—the essays McPhee writes run along the fortyninth parallel of North America from east to west.


Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen
Modern Library. (2008) 892 pages

It’s not often you get a writer who takes his own trilogy of novels and condenses them down into one masternarriative but that’s what Peter Matthiessen has done with Shadow Country. I can’t claim to have read the fuller novels individually—for those keeping score they are Killing Mr. Watson, Lost Man’s River, and Bone By Bone. The subject of this story is a mythic Florida bootlegger E.J. Watson, who gets murdered by his community in the opening scene. The story unfolds from a third person rendering of his legend and murder and follows a second person type investigation by his son into his life and murder and ends in the third part as a first person narrative from Watson filling in all the gaps—an illuminating some blind spots. The reading experience for this was truly powerful and unique.


 2666 by Roberto Bolaño
FSG. 1st American Edition. (2008) 898 pages.

This is one of those books where the less that is said going into it the better the experience. This is a mesmerizing and at times dark book and is the last book Bolano completed before his untimely death. It is in a way a summation and expansion of his whole life’s work. It covers all the levels of the modern world. Like I said, tho, the less I say the better.




Sean Thibodeau is the Coordinator of Community Planning. He can be reached at