The 50 Best Contemporary Novels Over 500 Pages
Long Books, Worth Your Time
Personally, I find solace in long novels. The good ones always seem to create space for the reader: space to sink and settle, and time to really learn what you’re dealing with, both in terms of character and in terms of author. You have to build something, reading a really long book. It’s almost a collaborative experience. So if you’re looking for a long-term relationship with a book right now, you couldn’t do much better than the books below.
For my sanity, I limited this list to contemporary novels, which here I am defining as being published in the last 50 years—I figure, you’ve already made your own decisions about whether to read Middlemarch and Ulysses and The Lord of the Rings, you know? You know.
Here are the rules: I only counted single volumes (it’s fine for them to be part of a series, but they have to meet the size requirements on their own), published in English since 1970. Writers only get one spot on the list. Page counts may vary over editions. And as ever, no list is definitive, “best” is an imaginary term, and I had to leave a lot of good books off, so feel free to add your own favorites in the comments section.
Richard Powers, The Overstory (512 pages)
Strap in for a 512-page book about trees. But of course it’s really about humanity—all literature is—and it’s weirdly engrossing. Though it lags a bit at the end when it succumbs to polemic, for the most part, Powers manages to entertain, inform, and inspire action in the most high profile work of climate fiction yet.
N. K. Jemisin, The Fifth Season (512 pages)
This is the most important work of speculative fiction written in the last ten years. Luckily, it’s the first in a trilogy (though the other two stop just short of making the page count for this list).
Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose (512 pages)
A murder mystery concerning a labyrinthine library, and probably the only bestselling novel to be based on semiotics.
Min Jin Lee, Pachinko (512 pages)
This four-generational saga of one Korean family who must give up their home for Japan is an absolutely captivating read. “History has failed us, but no matter.”
David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas (528 pages)
Mitchell’s masterpiece is a boon for the easily distracted or quickly bored—after all, this is six novels in one, each with a markedly different style and tone, each set in a different time period. Argue about the connections between them all you like, but for sheer delight, you could hardly do any better than this epic novel.
Tana French, The Witch Elm (528 pages)
It’s not my favorite of French’s novels (that would be The Likeness, obviously, I’m not a crazy person), but it’s the only one that tips over the 500-page mark, and honestly, even my third favorite French ranks above most other people’s books. The Witch Elm is also perhaps her most fully realized, investigating not just a murder but privilege and society and the notion of memory—or sanity—itself. It’s very good.
Margaret Atwood, The Robber Bride (528 pages)
Everyone puts The Blind Assassin on lists like this, and I get it, but personally I have a soft spot for Atwood’s delicious and extremely 90s retelling of The Robber Bridegroom story, in no small part due to the glorious villain (hero?) that is Zenia.
Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See (531 pages)
Can’t argue with those receipts—and honestly, despite my supposed literary snobbery, I don’t want to. Sure, it’s a little obvious (blind French girl, orphaned German boy, WWII) but man, it works. The writing is lovely too.
John Crowley, Little, Big (538 pages)
Featuring one of the best houses in all of literature, magical or otherwise.
Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex (544 pages)
A complex and engaging multi-generational family novel that is also one of the few to focus on an intersex character and also one of the best books ever written about Detroit.
Helen DeWitt, The Last Samurai (548 pages)
If you love language, or novels that play with form and function, this is the first book on this list you should read. It is also the best novel—and maybe the only novel you need ever read, because it’s just going to spoil you—about a precocious child.
A. S. Byatt, Possession (555 pages)
Everyone’s favorite novel of academics (and dead poets) in love.
Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall (559 pages)
Now that the trilogy is complete, you have no reason not to start Mantel’s two-time (soon to be three-time, let’s not kid ourselves) Booker Prize winning trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, do you?
Alexander Chee, The Queen of the Night (573 pages)
Chee’s opulent romp is narrated by a star of the Paris Opera—with, of course, a complicated past. The perfect novel to whisk you away for hours on end.
Donna Tartt, The Secret History (576 pages)
I never remember how long The Secret History actually is—it is slim and sharp in my mind. But this beloved narrative of bacchanal, murder, friendship, and most of all, beauty is an enveloping, involving read, from its perfect prologue to its disastrous end.
Isabella Hammad, The Parisian (576 pages)
Hammad’s dazzling debut novel concerns a young Palestinian dreamer who leaves home in 1914 to study at the Sorbonne—but when he returns, it is to a country in upheaval. A historical novel that is also a political novel that is also a love story, and every page a vibrant pleasure to read.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah (588 pages)
This love story-cum-immigration story, tracking two Nigerian lovers as they leave their country—one for the US, one for London—and try to find their way back together, is a chummy, clear-eyed delight for every one of its 588 pages.
Sarah Waters, Fingersmith (596 pages)
Like Dickens, but queer and feminist. Run, don’t walk.
Haruki Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (607 pages)
If you grew up in the 90s, there’s a good chance that this was the first book to truly blow your mind.
Denis Johnson, Tree of Smoke (624 pages)
The celebrated Vietnam novel of a celebrated literary hero.
Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children (632 pages)
The story of a nation and the story of a boy—well, two boys—converge in Rushdie’s richly embroidered masterpiece of magical realism.
Neil Gaiman, American Gods (635 pages)
A surreal, sometimes disturbing, genre-bending road trip novel featuring forgotten gods, lost souls, and dark revelations. Just what you want in a fantasy novel, especially when you’re stuck at home.
Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (639 pages)
Chabon’s magnum opus is a gloriously fun, wham-pow novel of heroes, friendship, magic, the Golden Age of Comics, and sure, okay, Hitler. But I promise that this is a book that will make you feel good, while also challenging you.
Ken Liu, The Grace of Kings (640 pages)
We know Liu can do small—his story “The Paper Menagerie” was the first piece of fiction to win the Hugo, the Nebula, and the World Fantasy Award at the same time—but he can also do big. His debut novel, the first in a series, reinvigorates the epic fantasy genre with “silkpunk” vibes.
Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections (653 pages)
Don’t @ me, okay?
Paul Murray, Skippy Dies (676 pages)
A very funny novel about a bunch of kids at a boarding school in Dublin, which begins when Skippy, well, dies. Mysteriously. During a donut-eating contest. I know.
Sergio De La Pava, A Naked Singularity (678 pages)
A funny, brash, messy and totally necessary postmodern novel about a public defender—the son of Colombian immigrants—who at the start of the book has never lost a case, and who stumbles into the “perfect” crime. Filled to the brim with asides and musings and boxing and pretty much everything that might constitute a life.
Ian Pears, An Instance of the Fingerpost (691 pages)
This wonderful historical—and philosophical—mystery novel set in 17th century Oxford is told from four competing points of view, each more unreliable than the next.
Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings (704 pages)
An ambitious, symphonic, and brilliant novel that begins with the violent unrest in 1976 Jamaica, including the attempted assassination of Bob Marley days before the concert that was supposed to bring everyone together, and unspools through the 80s and 90s in both Jamaica and New York.
Kate Atkinson, Life After Life (704 pages)
You’d expect that having to live through multiple versions of the same woman’s life—only in (almost) each, she evades death and lives a bit longer—would get a little boring, but it’s actually fascinating, even gripping, especially when she figures out what’s going on and sets off to kill Hitler. Maybe not the best novel to read in 2020, though, considering how many tries it takes her to avoid dying from the Spanish flu.
Tom Wolfe, The Bonfire of the Vanities (704 pages)
I mean, would you expect the quintessential novel of New York in the 80s to be anything other than ridiculously large and gilded and poisonous as all hell?
Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life (720 pages)
This may be the most divisive novel on the list—some people are obsessed with Yanagihara’s heartbreaking rendering of a group of young men and their friendship through the years (just the thought of it makes them cry), and others find it puerile and ridiculous. If you have a tolerance for the elaborate sentence (and for seriously upsetting depictions of abuse and self-harm), and what they used to call “hysterical realism,” you may find yourself in the former camp.
Mark Helprin, Winter’s Tale (748 pages)
An extraordinary highbrow fantasy and by far the best book to read in New York City in the winter.
William Gaddis, J R (752 pages)
752 pages, and they’re pretty much all dialogue, with no tags to even tell you who is talking. This sounds like hell but actually it is the weirdest, most hypnotic drug, once you just give in to it.
Leslie Marmon Silko, Almanac of the Dead (768 pages)
Silko’s grand, shimmering, complexly woven classic is a retelling of America and a reimagining of its future. We may not like what we see, but that’s why we should see it.
Thomas Pynchon, Mason & Dixon (773 pages)
Pynchon lives for longform, but Mason & Dixon is the most fun.
Samuel R. Delany, Dhalgren (801 pages)
One of the strangest and best science fiction novels you will ever read.
Ken Follett, The Pillars of the Earth (806 pages)
A historical novel so beloved that I’d get multiple disgruntled emails if I didn’t include it here.
Stephen King, The Stand (823 pages)
By my count, Stephen King has published 23 novels that are longer than 500 pages—for a very good time, read this essay by Kaitlyn Tiffany about spending a summer reading It—but considering the current moment, I have chosen to include his pandemic masterpiece above the rest.
Don DeLillo, Underworld (827 pages)
With apologies to White Noise truthers, this sprawling take on American existence is DeLillo’s finest achievement.
Eleanor Catton, The Luminaries (849 pages)
Even if you don’t know anything about astrology, if you have the time, it’s worth cracking into Catton’s Booker Prize-winning second novel, set in the New Zealand prospecting town of Hokitika, and featuring a whole host of absorbing, strange, and semi-moral characters, who are trying to figure out what really happened one fateful night (it involves murder, of course, and gold, and sex). For those seeking full absorption—and transportation.
Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (864 pages)
Like Dickens, but Gothic—and Magic. Again, for you, the running.
Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove (864 pages)
The Great American Cowboy Novel.
Roberto Bolaño, 2666 (912 pages)
Bolaño’s epic, five-part final novel is massive in scope, though centered on and forever circling the violent and fictional city of Santa Teresa, where hundreds of women have been murdered. Many people will tell you how good (and difficult) this novel is; for this reader, the best part is its strange quality of being found instead of told; that is, it feels like a myth, or a planet you’re seeing through a telescope. Certainly a classic of modern literature.
Vikram Chandra, Sacred Games (916 pages)
A big, bustling, richly textured gangster novel set in Mumbai.
Lucy Ellmann, Ducks, Newburyport (1,040 pages)
1,040 pages . . . in one sentence. Radical and readable and truly awesome in every sense of the word.
David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest (1,088 pages)
Wallace is certainly not hero worship material, that much is clear—but his most famous work is still an imperfect, impossibly good novel that gets more relevant every day.
Peter Nadas, tr. Imre Goldstein, Parallel Stories (1,152 pages)
A novel this long about 50 years of Hungarian history doesn’t sound that good, but this is history zoomed all the way in, in the best way: the history of passing cigarettes, of standing in bread lines, of stolen kisses. It is also, as Francine Prose put it, the most “dense, filthy, brilliant” history you’ll ever read.
Joseph McElroy, Women and Men (1,192 pages)
As others have pointed out, this massive, absurdly complex postmodern novel, which weighed four pounds in hardcover, should sit in our mental bookshelves next to Ulysses and The Recognitions, but it is often, oddly, forgotten.
Vikram Seth, A Suitable Boy (1,488 pages)
The longest novel on this list is both a family story and a political one—but really shows how hard it can be to find the right guy for your intellectual daughter.