The longest of the lot. Which is still not very long at all. As well as looking like the Frenchest man imaginable Honore de Balzac was the HBO of his day: pumping out stories where the emphasis was on multi-layered, believable characters that could not be pigeon-holed as either “good” or “evil”. A book about rabid, unconscionable ambition in a grubby world that helped set the template for what we think of as the modern novel.
Reading time: 4.9 hours (the same length of time it takes you to get to Cardiff and back by train from Paddington).
Open wide for a nice big slice of bleak pie. If you thought Fyodor Dostoyevsky had the last word in frost-bitten anguish think again, chum. Alexander Solzhenitsyn was a mathematician who spent eight years in a Stalinist Siberian gulag. This, his first novel, tells the story of what it’s like to live in said gulag for a single day. Guess what: it’s horrible! Intelligent, thoughtful, brilliant people sent to fight for survival in the harshest environment imaginable. Puts things in perspective and will probably put an end to you tweeting about the “inhuman misery” of your Central Line commute.
Reading time: 3.4 hours (the same length of time it takes you listen to all of Dr Dre’s studio albums back to back).
Joseph Conrad’s immortal 1899 tale of cruelty in colonial Africa isn’t some surreal fable: the novel was semi-autobiographical and the writer repeatedly pointed out that most of what occurs on its pages was stuff he had witnessed while serving as an officer in the Congo Free State. It’s grim stuff and as the book’s narrator drifts deeper and deeper into the country’s brutally exploited hinterlands you’ll find it gets progressively more and more difficult to tear yourself away. A book that will make you resent Belgians, which is at least a unique prejudice to have.
Reading time: 2.1 hours (a cinch! The same length of time it takes you to watch two episodes of The Bridge).
So multi-layered, beguiling, pop-literate, red herring-tastic, disorientating and imaginative it makes Twin Peaks look like an episode of Hollyoaks written and directed by Paul Merson. Author Thomas Pynchon is a deeply private (read: strange) man but if the labyrinthine, disturbing, unfathomable soul of The Crying… is anything to go by we should be glad he is not walking among us. Because he’s a weirdo. Just kidding Tom, you’re alright.
Reading time: 2.58 hours (the same length of time it takes you to watch an entire game of football including all the pre and post-match gubbins).
An earthy stew of Kabbalistic wisdom, Eastern European folklore and absolute evil. Isaac Bashevis Singer’s swirling, devilish debut is set in a shabby 17th century village that becomes the focal point of a messianic Jewish cult. Really captures the frenzied desperation of being a confused, stinking peasant in the 1600s. This is magical realism before magical realism was a thing. Salman Rushdie wishes he could rattle off supra-conscious, supernatural yet relatable tales with this much vim.
Reading time: 3.9 hours (the same length of time it takes you to slow-cook a leg of lamb).
Reading time was calculated using the average person’s reading speed of 300 words a minute.
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