10 Epic Novels to Read During Self-Isolation

Will Harris


There are those great epics, old and new, that we all plan on getting around to at some point. Many of us have considered tackling these thousand-page Russian and French classics of literature, but often convince ourselves that it’s too much of an undertaking, timewise. Well, now is the time. Here are ten suggestions both classic and modern.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Of course, War and Peace was going to be the first choice. This Russian epic is often used as shorthand for “enormous, unreadable book” but the ironic thing about War and Peace is just how readable it actually is. With new and engaging English translations to pick from, War and Peace is a ripping, engaging narrative of family struggle and political intrigue at a fascinating time in Russia’s history.

If you need convincing, watch the recent BBC miniseries starring Paul Dano and you’ll then be entirely convinced that this enormous book is well worth your time.

The Stand by Stephen King

Stephen King is often considered the master of horror, at least in the United States. His books are often digestible, unusual, and inevitably adapted into a movie or TV show. Not The Stand. This book is different.

The Stand is an enormous 800+ page sweeping epic. Though, for the sake of honesty, it isn’t King’s longest novel. That honour goes to It, which was recently adapted into a pair of movies. It, however, isn’t as much of an epic as The Stand, which is also a very timely read. A post-apocalyptic dark fantasy novel set in a time after a strain of influenza has all but wiped out the human population. Chillingly topical right now, and an enormous undertaking, The Stand is a gripping, rousing joy to read.

The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan

Not actually a single book but, rather, an enormous fantasy series. Each book in this epic is, in itself, quite an undertaking. Put together, they make for at least a year of engaging, unforgettable reading fun. Heavily inspired by The Lord of the Rings (which is especially clear in the first book), The Wheel of Time is beloved by fantasy fans around the world as the definitive fantasy series.

The author, Robert Jordan, didn’t even get to finish the series before he died, and so renowned fantasy author Brandon Sanderson had to write the ending. This undertaking took the best part of Jordan’s entire life, and what we have now is a complete and magical fantasy journey to undertake during these tough times.

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Lord of the Rings is the fantasy genre’s War and Peace: enormous, staggering in scope, hugely influential, and often avoided even by fans of the genre. This trilogy of books is a lot to take in, so dense is the writing, the lore, and the plot. But we have all watched and loved Peter Jackson’s film trilogy adaptation and now is certainly the time to dig into the source material. Right here is a true fantasy masterpiece, the likes of which we haven’t seen since.

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

Touted by some as the greatest novel ever written, and by others as pretentious nonsense, Infinite Jest is certainly an intense and ambitious novel. The modern War and Peace: a book that many of us plan to read with the best intentions yet never seem to get around to.

Written by David Foster Wallace, a troubled genius of a writer, this book comprises four interwoven narratives during a future time when the US, Canada, and Mexico have become one unified North America. Calling it a book of big ideas and heavy themes is an understatement, but it is nevertheless an engrossing and tantalising piece of literature that should be read by all.


1Q84 by Haurki Murakami

Often separated into three parts, Murakami’s epic 1Q84 is a staggering and strange epic. So large is this book that it took both of Murakami’s English translators – Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel – to tackle it together.

Murakami’s novels often air on the long side, but this is certainly his defining epic. It’s a book that combines many of Murakami’s signature tropes and themes, as its protagonist notices that the world is becoming strange and unhinged, eventually stumbling into the midst of a religious cult. 1Q84 is the perfect undertaking during this time of uncertainty and self-isolation.

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Dostoyevsky is often considered pre-revolution Russia’s most beloved author, and for good reason. His novels vary wildly in length, but The Brothers Karamazov is a lengthy epic indeed. It was also his final work before he died.

Dostoyevsky’s novels are known to deal, time and time again, with questions of morality, God, and man’s place as well as his responsibilities. No book tackles these concepts, and even more besides, on a grander scale than The Brothers Karamazov. It’s an intensely engrossing philosophical masterpiece.

If you’re looking for a book that isn’t only long, but also both emotionally and philosophically engrossing, this is what you need to read.

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

To this day, Don Quixote (or, to give it its full title, The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha) is the best-selling novel of all time. A work of Spanish literature so beloved for centuries, that its legacy alone almost makes it required reading. Beyond that obligation, however, Don Quixote is also an hilarious, witty piece of genius satire on multiple levels.

The titular Don Quixote is a Spanish nobleman so rapt by romantic tales of chivalry that he sets out to become a knight, casting a farmer as his squire, and seeing the world as a very different beast to what it really is. Countless characters in literature, film, and TV have been influenced by this protagonist, and its impact on the world is greater than almost any other book. Now is the time to read it for yourself.

In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust

Possibly the longest work of fiction ever written, Proust’s In Search of Lost Time is a book in seven volumes published across many years. It’s a gently philosophical work that recounts the transition from childhood to adulthood of a French aristocrat at the turn of the 20th century, as he muses on the meaning (or meaninglessness) of life and the world we inhabit.

So influential and potentially life-changing is this work that British-Swiss writer Alain de Botton wrote an entire book arguing how reading Proust can be a transformative experience. And, well, if we ever needed a transformative experience, now might be the time.

Ulysses by James Joyce

If only one book could be given the title ‘masterpiece’, many readers would make the case that the title should go to Ulysses. Arguably the greatest work of Irish literature, Ulysses was James Joyce’s magnum opus. An experimental epic that recounts a single day in the life of a Dubliner named Leopold Bloom. That day is 16th June 1904.

The book’s narrative goes through various shifts in structure that keep it evolving and transforming, but it is also a staggering work of detail that so closely and surreally documents the ordinary daily events of an ordinary man on an ordinary day. It is also a smart modernist retelling of Homer’s Odyssey, which seems like an unbelievable statement until you read it, so find out for yourself.

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