There have been some truly massive books written over the years. The Count of Monte Cristo at 375,695 words and 1,276 pages (in the Penguin Classics English translation) is one of the longest books I’ve read. While a classic, I feel it could probably have done with a bit of an edit in some of the middle sections. It, however, isn’t even close to being the longest book ever written. But what is? Let’s find out.
What’s a Book?
The answer, like with so many of these questions, depends a lot on how you define the terms. If you leave everything open, then critically un-acclaimed abstract artworks like Nigel Tomm’s The Blah Story (3,277,227 words long), which was written solely to be the world’s longest book, are included. But I don’t think any book where the plot summary on the back cover starts with:
“It was a blah blah blah blah blah for blah blah blah in blah. Blah blah blah blah, blah to blah about blah blah blah. Blah decided blah blah blah blah. Blah blah very blah blah blah blah a blah. Blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah, blah blah blah blah.”
deserves to be included.
Similarly, are we only talking about books written or translated into English? French writers have a habit of being very wordy, so several books only published in French are in contention-based purely on word count.
Does it even have to be published? There have been some ludicrously long manuscripts written by driven (and possibly deranged) writers that aren’t discovered until after their deaths. For example, Henry Darger’s In the Realms of the Unreal is 15,145 pages bound in 15 volumes and an uncountable number of words long. He wrote it over 60 years, but it was never published. And if it has to be published, does self-published count?
Are non-fiction and scholarly works included? Is your idea of a book something you’d sit down and read for pleasure or do things like Church Dogmatics by Karl Barth, a Protestant theological study that was over 6 million words long at the time of Barth’s death in 1968, get a look?
And on that subject, do books have to be finished? Barth planned a fifth volume that was never completed.
Also, can a “book” be composed of multiple volumes? Or does it have to be published as a single physical book? Is a novel with multiple volumes the same book? Or the same novel?
Depending on how you answer the questions above, you end up with a very different answer to the question. For our purposes, I’m going to focus on published novels and exclude stuff like the Encyclopædia Britannica (roughly 50 million words over 32,000 pages in 32 volumes), but if you think something else deserves the crown, weigh in below in the comments.
A Couple of Contenders
Guinness World Records awards the title of the longest novel to French philosopher Marcel Proust for A La Recherche du Temps Perdu (Remembrance of Things Past in English). At 1,267,069 words over seven volumes and 3,031 pages, it’s a serious read, but there are other books in the running.
Les Hommes de Bonne Volonté (that’s Men of Good Will in English) by Jules Romains is another French monster. It’s over two million words long, and its 7,892 pages were published in 27 volumes. However, there are some questions over whether it’s a novel or a novel series or a novel cycle.
Even longer, Devta by Mohiuddin Nawab is 11,206,310 words. This serialized Urdu fantasy thriller was published every month for 33 years in Suspense Digest, a Pakistani magazine. It’s the single longest continuous story ever written. The final chapter was published in January 2010.
All these are works that have been published in other languages and, in some cases, translated into English. The longest originally-published-in-English novel I could find is A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell. Again, there are some questions as to whether it’s a novel or novel cycle, but it does make both Time, the BBC, and Modern Library’s lists of best novels so that counts in its favor. At around a million words and 3,024, its 12 volumes will weigh down any shelf.
Finally, we have what I think is my pick for the longest book ever published. Zettels Traum (Bottom’s Dream in English) by Arno Schmidt is about 1.1 million words and 1,536 pages long but crucially, published in a single gigantic volume. It’s the longest novel in one physical book.
But what do you think? Which book best meets your criteria? Let us know in the comments.