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The Damn Big Book List 

Here's summer reading for those with attention-surplus disorder, or the simply anti-social.

Break out your back braces and stretch your spines, folks. You'll find no lighthearted literary love stories herein, and no made-for-CGI space alien secret agent courtroom thrillers. Not a novella, a day in the life or a succinct celebrity memoir in the lot. Why waste away your summer with such airy fair? Those margarita pitchers and buckets of Corona are euthanizing your brain just fine without the help.

Summer is the singular season when many of us have the time to read more than a few selections from Uncle John's Bathroom Reader. So whether you spend it on the beach or alone in your urban bohemian bower envying your cash-flush corporate sell-out friends, use this summer to work your way through a book stocked with seven-syllable words, arcane philosophy, elusive allusions and an entire strapping young pine's worth of pulp.

To that end, we offer The Damn Big Book List: the be-all and break-all of maximum density reading and a gravity sink of 700-plus-page masterworks. Remember to lift with your legs!

Nothing but Mammals

The Structure of Evolutionary Theory
By Stephen Jay Gould, 1,474 pages

(Harvard University Press)

Darwin was a primitive. Select Gould for the complete heart-(or adaptive circulatory analogue)-warming story of our ancestral slime mold's eons-long ambition to develop a good set of respiratory organs and become the next American Idol. To claim a 1,474-page book that gives such an exhaustively comprehensive explanation of the theory of evolution is written for "a lay reader" would mutate the truth, but Gould's brain dump requires no advanced degrees in biochemistry or genetics.

The Guide to Getting It On!
By Paul Joannides, 698 pages
(Goofy Foot Press)

OK, so this book comes in two pages under the 700-page threshold, but size doesn't matter, right? Besides, you're unlikely to finish more than a chapter at a time before taking a break to apply this book's advice for doing it like they do on the Discovery Channel. The Guide is a sometimes silly, sometimes serious, never sterile comprehensive handbook for everything from sexual health and happiness to Hoovers and hummers. (No word yet on a publication date for the special laminated edition.)

Moby-Dick
By Herman Melville, 704 pages

(Bantam; Reissue Edition)

If you last read it in high school -- or never read it at all -- ignore the conventional wisdom about this tale. It's actually -- swear on the unabridged OED -- often very funny. Melville has a playful way with language, dropping into imaginative on-board theatrical scripts, musical numbers and other clever commentaries on received literary forms. Lots of smart, serious stuff, too, of course. Oh, and no matter what symbolism camp you fall into, the whale is actually just a large marine mammal.


One Book to Rule Them All (and You Get to Bind Them)

The Tale of Genji
By Murasaki Shikibu, translation by Royall Tyler, 1,216 pages
(Penguin USA)

This Japanese book, composed early in the 11th century by a noble woman in the imperial court, is believed to be the first novel ever written. (What? She couldn't start with a nice lightweight novella?) Originally published in serial as 54 books, it follows the life of a man born to the emperor's least-favored consort as he uses his good looks, poetry and old-fashioned Heian Dynasty ingenuity to seduce pretty women.

Clarissa: Or the History of a Young Lady
By Samuel Richardson, 1,536 pages

(Viking Press)

English-major friends giving you grief because they slogged through the entirety of Dickens' Bleak House? Turn (and maybe even break) the tables with the longest novel in English literature. This 1 million-and-more-word epistolary novel is written as the correspondence of a good girl gone wild, her bad-boy beau (named Lovelace, which is just perfect, don't you think?), and their friends, family, lawyers and the like. Originally intended as a cautionary tale for restless virgins, the novel was received as a powder-dampening romance in its time.

The Lord of the Rings
By J.R.R. Tolkien, 1,216 pages
(Houghton Mifflin)

As every good guardian of Minas Tirith knows, Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings as one Damn Big Book, but his iridescent-robed publisher demanded he divide it into three. Reforge the one book (with some Gandalf-gray duct tape), then impress all those elven beach hotties with your extended exegesis on the seven palantíri. Glutton for Galadriel? Tape The Hobbit (320 pages) to the front and The Silmarillion (480 pages) to the back for a book that will have you wandering through Middle Earth all summer long.


Some Superstrings Attached

Cryptonomicon
By Neal Stephenson, 1,168 pages

(Avon Press)

The Da Vinci Code? Amateurs. This hard drive-crashing, hacker-set thriller follows a WWII cryptologist and his 21st century Web guru grandson in two storylines networked by a punch-card code and some Nazi gold. Stephenson's detailed explanations of computer security, cracking, networking, open source code and culture, encryption, code breaking, information flow, digital espionage, anonymizing, and all other things cyber cool make this required reading for any Information Age anarchist.

The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory
By Brian Greene, 464 pages

(W.W. Norton & Company; Reprint Edition)

This inter-dimensional planetary physics book may appear to have only 464 pages, but that's because you're viewing them in three-plus-one-dimensional space. Written on CERN-spun 10-dimensional branes traveling at relativistic speeds through folded corner space, this well-woven explanation of quantum string theory (and cogent history of all the physics that preceded it) reveals the beauty wound up in the current attempt to unite general relativity with quantum theory. No advanced math required, but for those who have it, Greene provides mathematical glosses in the endnotes.


The Whole Wide World

Underworld: A Novel
By Don DeLillo, 832 pages
(Scribner; Reprint Edition)

The postmodernists have written more than their fair share of Damn Big Books. Ulysses needs longer than a single summer to complete, Gravity's Rainbow is a bit heavy on the scatology, and Infinite Jest is not quite as funny as you might think. Besides, DeLillo is the true poet of the postmodernists, arranging his unwoven words like sand mandalas of soda cans. His masterpiece of waste disposal, nuclear weapons and baseball is one of the finest American novels ever written.

A Suitable Boy: A Novel
By Vikram Seth, 1,488 pages
(Perennial)

Before publishing this hernia-inducing hunk of high-minded Hindu melodrama, Seth was best known for The Golden Gate, a novel written entirely in rhymed sonnets (690 of them). The original manuscript for A Suitable Boy was reportedly about 2,000 pages long, but Seth eventually decided to trim it down a bit. This "abridged" version follows four families in post-colonial India as Lata Mehra -- a Hindu Juliet -- falls in love with a Muslim Romeo. All of India (minus those trimmed 500 pages) is revealed in the attempt to find her a more suitable mate.

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