Doorstoppers: Books that provide physical exercise along with a mental workout (IANS Column: Bookends)

Certain news portals may have a small blurb next to an article headline that tells the reader the time it will take them to read it — usually five minutes or less. The feature, which can be found on some online editing tools too, seems a rather telling indictment of our contemporary time-stressed, hyper-regimented life, but it is unclear why it’s confined to reading only.

Supposing this trend gets transplanted to books as well? Will it work on what are known, in the literary realm, as ‘doorstoppers’, or works so thick and heavy, say over 500 to 1,000 pages or more, that they can be used as the eponymous article.

For such books, the reading time will need to be measured in weeks, or months, and for the casual, not very committed, readers, it could stretch to a year.

While many comprehensive and leading dictionaries, encyclopaedias, and textbooks, from various realms of sciences to law to computer languages, are doorstoppers, the category is still common in fiction. These must be differentiated from omnibus editions in which two or three ‘medium-sized’ works of an author, or even more than one author, are printed together.

Doorstoppers in fiction usually comprise what we call literary classics, say George Eliot’s ‘Middlemarch’ (nearly 900 pages), or Count Leo Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’ (more than 1,000 pages in most editions), or Miguel de Cervantes’ ‘Don Quixote’ (nearly or over 1,000 pages, depending on the edition).

They can also be about titanic conflicts between good and evil — everything from Alexander Dumas’ grand revenge saga ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ (1,000 pages plus in most editions) to the Harry Potter series (particularly, the last four installments, with ‘The Order of the Phoenix’ being 700-800 pages, depending on the edition), to grand sweeps of history, spanning several generations, as by authors such as James Michener and James Clavell, or romances (Margaret Mitchell’s ‘Gone With The Wind’, 900-1,000 pages), or a mixture of all, say M.M. Kaye’s ‘The Far Pavilions’ (over 950 pages).

And you can count on them to have tons of characters — ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ begins with half a dozen and goes on to have three dozen prominent ones by the time it gets into high gear. Others have no shortage and some helpfully have a list of characters, usually at the beginning, to help you keep track.

The advent of technology has made actual doorstoppers rather rare, as e-readers and tablets can accommodate a whole host of the bulkiest books, saving avid readers the chore of lugging them around — though some aficionados still do. Owning these is also a mark of pride for fervent book owners for the gravitas they confer upon their bookshelves.

Let us look at some doorstoppers across various genres.

As mentioned, literary classics, by the likes of Tolstoy — whose family name derives from the Russian word ‘tolstii’ (meaning thick or stout), or by his compatriot Fyodor Dostoyevsky, or others, such as Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, or Dumas, turn out to be doorstoppers, since they were paid by the page, and seem to have made the most of it. Most of their famous works began as serial installments, so they did not consciously — it can be assumed — set out to write heavy tomes.

Dumas was a master. His ‘The Three Musketeers’ is the first of the three novels that comprise the D’Artagnan Romances, and was followed by ‘Twenty Years After’ — both are at least 700 pages-plus in most editions. The final installment, ‘The Vicomte de Bragelonne’, is usually divided into three, or more, books — the last being ‘The Man in the Iron Mask’, and each one of them is over 700-800 pages long.

Dickens was not far behind – of his 14 completed novels, eight, including ‘The Pickwick Papers’, ‘Nicholas Nickleby’, ‘David Copperfield’, and ‘Our Mutual Friend’ are well over 800 pages in most editions, and some span 1,000 pages plus with annotations and footnotes.

But the tradition continues beyond the 19th century.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic high fantasy adventure ‘The Lord of the Rings’, well-known due to the films, is a prime example.

Though Tolkien wanted it published as one, it was eventually published as three volumes of two books each — ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’, ‘The Two Towers’ and ‘The Return of the King’ — between July 1954 and October 1955, due to various reasons, such as paper shortage, high production costs, and the publishers’ uncertainty about its reception.

Happily, the publishers subsequently published it together — a special hardcover and illustrated edition that came out in 2021 consisted of 1,248 pages each and a paperback, 1,216 pages.

Even before him, there was Kathleen Winsor’s bestselling historical romance ‘Forever Amber’ (1944), set in mid 17th-century England when the monarchy was restored under Charles II. It tells of orphaned Amber St. Clare, who makes her way up in society by sleeping with and/or marrying successively richer and more important men, while nursing her unattainable love. It was promptly censured by the Catholic Church, making it a bestseller.

What keeps the book, which is 992 pages in its Penguin paperback edition, from being a forerunner of Jackie Collins or, say, Shobha De is the meticulous historical research covering Restoration fashion, and titbits, such as how the tea habit took over England, as well as contemporary politics, and public disasters, including the plague and the Great Fire of London.

Austrian writer Robert Musil’s modernist work ‘The Man Without Qualities” (first published in 1930 in German; 1953 in English) is a quasi-allegorical, existential — and satirical — look at the Austro-Hungarian Hapsburg empire in its twilight era, just before World War I.

The principal protagonist is a rather vague, ambivalent, and indifferent mathematician named Ulrich, the ‘man without qualities’, who depends on the world to mould him. The work also shows how a celebration of international peace and imperial unity leads to national chauvinism, war, and collapse.

It was unfinished, but the English version is over 1,150 pages, while the original German one, over 2,100.

After ‘normal-size’ works such as the inter-racial love story ‘Sayonara’ (1954) and depiction of a radically different Afghanistan in ‘Caravans’ (1963), Michener began producing doorstoppers with his multi-generational pageants set in a specific geographical area.

‘Hawaii’ (1959) is 1,136 pages in paperback; ‘The Source’ (1965), where a team of archaeologists excavate a mound in Israel, and their story is interspersed with an account from each level they unearth, is 1,104 pages in paperback; ‘Caribbean’ (1989), spanning from Columbus to Castro or thereabouts, is around 900 pages.

Several other works in this tradition, whether dealing with a specific American state — Texas (1,472 pages), Alaska (1,152) or Colorado (1,104) — or countries such as Poland (around 700 pages), or South Africa (1,200), are also bulky reads.

Francis Edward Wintle a.k.a. Edward Rutherfurd also follows the same pattern, moving through the millennia of whatever area he dwells upon, featuring lots and lots of characters and not stinting on details. ‘Russka: The Novel of Russia’ (1991) is 1,024 pages long; ‘London’ (1997), the story of the city from Roman times to the present, covers 1,328 pages; and ‘New York’ (900 to 1,050 pages in various paperback editions).

The last four books of Clavell’s ‘Asian Saga’ are more than 1,000 pages long, including ‘Shogun’ (1975), set in the Japan of the 1600s, is 1,136 pages, and ‘Noble House’ (1981), which is about Hong Kong in the 1960s, is 1,296 pages — though the latter’s timespan, after an interlude from the past, is a few days only.

The penchant for doorstoppers still persists.

Horror maestro Stephen King’s ‘Dark Tower’ series started with ‘The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger’ (1982) at a modest 225 or so pages, but ‘The Dark Tower IV: Wizard and Glass’ (1997) went up to 887 pages, and the last — ‘The Dark Tower VII: The Dark Tower’ (2004) — stretched to 845.

Stephenie Meyer’s ‘Twilight’ saga’s fourth part, ‘Breaking Dawn’ (2008), is well over 700 pages.

Some Indian writers also qualify. Vikram Seth’s ‘A Suitable Boy’ (1993) can run to 1,500 pages in some editions, while Vikram Chandra’s Mumbai crime saga, ‘Sacred Games’ (2006), is nearly or over 1,000 pages, depending on the edition.

Doorstoppers, besides satiating avid readers, can also serve as makeshift exercise equipment — just holding them up to read will work wonders for hand and arm muscles and wrist flexibility, and even as a weapon, giving an entirely new meaning to the idiom ‘throw the book at’.

Who said books only catered to the mind?

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in)

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