What have people been doing to pass all these extra hours at home? Burying ourselves in ultra-long novels such as War and Peace and Don Quixote, apparently. At the start of lockdown No 1, all the way back in March, we reported that readers were starting to stock up on longer novels and classic fiction. More than seven months on, Penguin Random House says that sales of its edition of War and Peace – which runs to 1,440 pages – have boomed by 69% in the UK so far this year: according to book sales monitor Nielsen BookScan, they’ve gone from 3,700 copies sold in 2019 to 6,300 in 2020 so far.
The publisher has also seen an uplift in sales of Don Quixote (1,056 pages, up 53%) Anna Karenina (865 pages, up 52%), Middlemarch (880 pages, up 40%) and Crime and Punishment (720 pages, up 35%).
“We were expecting possibly to see a spike in comfort reads, like cosy crime or light comic novels. Instead it seems that readers have been inspired in lockdown to tackle the great literary monuments – the books that maybe they’d always intended to read, but never before now had the time to embark on,” says Penguin Classics editorial director Jess Harrison.
Whether readers are finishing their odysseys remains to be seen. But there are some success stories, such as the more than 3,000 readers who participated in Tolstoy Together, a group reading of War and Peace overseen by the novelist Yiyun Li, who assigned them 10-15 pages of daily reading over 85 consecutive days
“I have found that the more uncertain life is, the more solidity and structure Tolstoy’s novels provide,” says Li. “In these times, one does want to read an author who is so deeply moved by the world that he could appear unmoved in his writing.”
This has certainly been true for me. After burying myself in the immersive joy of Mary Stewart’s Merlin books (my omnibus edition runs to more than 900 pages) earlier this summer, I’m currently nearing the end of a Dune reread. Only 600-odd pages, so somewhat paltry compared to Li’s journey to 19th-century Russia, but my lord, sinking back into Frank Herbert’s world of sand worms and spice, ’thopters and Bene Gesserit “witches”, has been absolutely what I needed. As I tend to do every time I reread Dune, I’ve found myself muttering apposite lines to myself – “Fear is the little death” – and slyly practising my Fremen sand walk when I’m at the playground with my kids: “They must sound like the natural shifting of sand … like the wind … Step … drag … drag … step … step … wait.” After all, you never know when Shai-Hulud will show his face.
Following up Dune with the likes of Dune Messiah and Children of Dune would up my page-count to levels more worthy of the War and Peace crew, but I’m not convinced yet that I’ll continue on to Herbert’s (inferior, in my memory) sequels: I’m certainly not delving back into the ones written after his death. But another long read certainly tempts. What are your favourite long books? Have you been finding solace in novels that require both hands to hold?