Exploring and Explaining Epic Fiction

What makes a novel an epic novel?

That kind of book often is long, contains many characters, is set in various places, has a story line spanning multiple years and even generations, and is filled with consequential events — such as war, adventure, quests, travel, societal changes, family feuds, and/or confrontations with evil. Readers react with adjectives such as “sweeping” and “action-packed.”

On the other hand, an epic novel usually is not solely focused on a romance (though a romance or three might be part of the mix), usually is not funny (though it might have humorous moments), and often does not depict characters in a deeply analytical way. That means authors such as Jane Austen and Henry James wrote great novels but not epic novels.

Also, epic novels might or might not be literary, and might or might not fall into the historical-fiction category.

Why am I blathering on about this? Well, I’m currently reading Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion, which definitely qualifies as an epic work. The mostly Oregon-set novel is long (my edition is 715 pages of small type), has a large cast, jumps around in time, and features a bitter strike in a lumber town. There’s also intense ill will between two half-brothers — the older a “tough guy,” and the younger a more educated type who returns to Oregon after many years in the East. Tour de force writing, too.

The book by Kesey (best known for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) reminds me a bit of John Steinbeck’s earlier East of Eden. Very different novels, but they share a mostly West Coast milieu, a multigenerational span, and almost biblical sibling strife.

Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is also kind of epic in its way. While it takes place over a relatively short period of time, the author ambitiously depicts the Joad family’s quest to find a better life by traveling from drought-stricken Oklahoma to the supposed promised land of California. Added to the stew are depictions of death, class differences, social injustice, resistance, and more.

Any piece about epic novels can’t omit perhaps the most epic novel of all: Leo Tolstoy’s massive War and Peace, whose title is self-explanatory. There’s also Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and its obsessed Captain Ahab, almost mythical white whale, rich prose, etc. And Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, which says just about everything that can be said about race in America and related topics.

Or how about the multigenerational masterpieces of magic realism One Hundred Years of Solitude (Gabriel Garcia Marquez) and The House of the Spirits (Isabel Allende)?

Then there’s James Clavell’s nearly 1,000-page historical novel Shogun, which skillfully combines a detailed look at early 17th-century Japan, a clash of Eastern and Western traditions, a cross-cultural romance, plenty of violence, much maneuvering for power, other kinds of intrigue, and so on.

Miguel de Cervantes’ picaresque Don Quixote — a novel published around the time Shogun was set — is also epic in its adventures, explorations of madness vs. sanity, etc. And funnier than most epic novels.

More recently, we have Eleanor Catton’s sprawling, intricate The Luminaries, set in the time of New Zealand’s 1860s gold rush; and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, which bounces from New York City to Nevada to Amsterdam as it tackles terrorism, the importance of art, and more.

Also sort of epic are Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom (war, media, environmentalism, and other manifestations of U.S. society); Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex (immigration, industrialism, gender identity, and more); and Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (immigration again, the Latino/Latina experience in America, pop culture, etc.).

Semi-eligible for this discussion are various trilogies and series. They can of course be epic — think J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels — but their multiple-book nature gives authors the advantage of more time and space to achieve epic-ness.

Your favorite epic novels? How would you define what makes a novel epic?

(The box for submitting comments is below already-posted comments, but your new comment will appear at the top of the comments area — unless you’re replying to someone else.)

I’ve finished and am now rewriting/polishing a book called Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Writers, but am still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as “Dear Abby” and Ann Landers, and other notables such as Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at dastor@earthlink.net to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.

111 thoughts on “Exploring and Explaining Epic Fiction

  1. There are many well known classic novels that are NOT considered epic, examples include “Pride and Prejudice”, “Jane Eyre”, “Madame Bovary”, “Fathers and Sons”, “The Great Gatsby”, and “All Quiet on the Western Front”. I’ve read all of them except for P&P.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The most epic novel I have ever read is “War and Peace”, I have trouble actually remembering the details in that novel because it had tons of characters and scenes. It also covered a lot of military history that I’m not familiar with. Other novels that I’ve read in my life that could be considered epic included “David Copperfield”, “Anna Karenina”, and “East of Eden”. “A Tale of Two Cities” and “Ben-Hur” are two novels that have a certain epic quality even though they are much shorter than those other works that I mentioned.

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  3. Ahhh.. Epic novels. They just don’t write enough of those these days. Epic has always been my abso fav type of book. And I think it is really interesting what you say about Cuckoo’s Nest. On the surface it does NOT seem like one, it’s not even a doorstop in terms of pages but there’s so much underneath, it was always the sum of so much more than its apparent parts. I’d cite a certain book presently being deemed racist shall we say as a fav epic and another I read years ago called The Heirs of the Kingdom about the Crusades but with the band of villagers who opt to go as opposed to the knights etc, who are central to the entire story.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Shehanne! Yes, it does seem like more epic novels were written many years ago than recently. I also love those “big” (in many ways) books — when they’re good enough to be worth the time invested, of course. 🙂

      The late Ken Kesey seems to me to be an underrated author these days. I’ve only read his “Sometimes a Great Notion” and “One Flew…,” but they were both tour de force novels.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I think he was underrated despite giving the world these books. Epics seem to have fallen from flavor with publishers. I love epics and they are my first love for writing but these days it is all about, not having too many characters or doorstops of books. I do hope they come back. There is something so wonderfully immersive about them.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Sadly true about epics being in less favor these days. Shorter attention spans, many other things to spend time with in addition to/instead of books, etc.

          “There is something so wonderfully immersive about them” — great line!

          Liked by 1 person

          • Lol. You are too kind, That is just how I see them. For me they are curl up and live with the characters books. I also gather from publishers that it is to do with the narration. the God narrator is no longer fashionable. It is the POV narrator BUT only no more than two povs. I do so hope they come back into fashion.

            Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Exploring and Explaining Epic Fiction — Dave Astor on Literature | Arrowhead Freelance and Publishing

  5. Dave, I doubt very much that you blather, but if you do, then I reckon blathering is a good thing, which might be lucky for me, as I think I’m about to blather. I know what you mean about a series having more opportunity to be epic, so they may not be as impressive, but I think “Lord of the Rings” absolutely qualifies. The novels on their own aren’t that long, and together I think they’re just the right length for epicness. While I’m not the biggest fan of Tolkein, he does tick all the epic boxes: a big, complicated, complete world, lots of well-defined characters with their own complete stories, and a terrific sense of time. Middle Earth doesn’t come into being just because Frodo said so, and it doesn’t cease to exist after Frodo’s story is done. I think George R. R. Martin has done the same, and to a lesser degree, so has Robert Jordan. I’m up to book 4 or 5 of the “Wheel of Time” series, and would love your opinion if you do start them 🙂

    On a non fantasy tangent, “Gone with the Wind” is ABSOLUTELY epic. It was the first thing I thought of when reading your essay. But it’s already been discussed so well by energywriter, and bobess, and Kat Lib, so I’ll move on. Though I must say I completely agree with Kat Lib about Melly being the heroine of the story. I’ve only seen the movie once. It was with my Nan, while my grandfather drove us both crazy asking ‘who’s that?’ and ‘what’s he doing?’

    Finally, using Bill’s definition of epic, my recent discovery is “Crime and Punishment”. Though it’s on every single book list ever created, I’d never actually read it until last year. Everything about it is so brilliant, that it’s an epic fail on part that I never got to it sooner!

    I’m sorry that it’s taken me so long to comment here, Dave, but it’s been a crazy month end for me, learning two new jobs, and trying to move house. But I’ve given myself tonight off, and I will quickly comment on your new topic, before having some dinner and then going to bed at the crazy hour of 8pm!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Terrific comment, Susan! Thanks! Never too late to post something… 🙂

      Wow, you’ve been busy — learning two jobs and moving. Way too much at once! 😦 Continued good luck with all that.

      I agree — “The Lord of the Rings” IS epic, for all the reasons you aptly mentioned. And if it were all one book, it would indeed be roughly the length of some single-volume epic novels.

      “Gone With the Wind” is certainly epic, too — though, as I’ve said elsewhere, the racism prevents me from considering it among my favorite epic novels.

      I agree that “Crime and Punishment” is one of the best novels ever written, but I’m wondering if it’s epic because it mostly focuses on one person, has a relatively small supporting cast, and in many ways is a more “interior” psychological novel. “The Brothers Karamazov” might be more epic among Dostoyevsky’s works. Loved your “epic fail” quip!


  6. Back to epic fiction: has anyone read ‘Dr. Zhivago’ and, if so, which translation would you recommend? The Pevear and Volokhonsky translation is, of course, more current but some people have stated a preference for earlier translations.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I read “Doctor Zhivago” a couple of years ago, and I was impressed by it. Definitely an epic novel. But I have no memory of which translation I read — it was a library book, so I can’t check. 😦


  7. I have to admit, the chances I’ll take on anything that runs to multi-volumes of several hundred pages each, grow smaller by the day. Recently, I found, for free, the four books of the original Game of Thrones series in a handy cardboard case, with the fifth on top the case. I hefted them, read the first few pages of the first book, and set it down for others to try. Whatever the plot promised by way of thrills intrigue and action, did not , to my eye any way, compensate for the prose style, at least least as exemplified by those few pages I read.

    But that’s just me. I have such a long list of stand-alone novels ahead of me before my lights go out, that I know hundreds will remain unread if I live 30 more years– which I won’t.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I hear you, jhNY. Very long novels and series can be daunting, time-wise — leaving fewer hours to read the many shorter stand-alone novels on our lists. I still occasionally read series, and very long novels, but do so somewhat sparingly.

      For the above reason, I’ve also hesitated to dive into George R.R. Martin, whose prose style may very well have improved as the series went along. It certainly happened with J.K. Rowling and the Harry Potter books!


      • It doesn’t 🙂 I love the Martin series. The thrills, intrigue and action kept me hooked so they were quick reads for me, despite the fact that the series is thousands of pages. But if you’re wanting to dedicate reading time to superb writing, don’t feel guilty about passing this by. I do recommend the TV series though. The story differs in places, however it still ‘feels’ the same (kind of page-turning, edge of your seat, I can’t believe they did that!) and it only takes 60 hours!

        Liked by 1 person

  8. In the spirit of the week’s topic, let me add

    1)The USA Trilogy, by John Dos Passos, a set of novels that features, more than any character, the idiosyncratic writing style of the author, as buttressed by its idiosyncratic structure — along with the detailed, from-birth stories of its 12 main characters, there are also “The Newsreel” sections (Ilsa Morante’s History: A Novel, a later book, also has a running news event [national and even international] listing paralleling/contrasting with the novel’s story line) and the “Camera Eye” sections, which are explorations of the author’s development and point of view. Three novels are meant to show the state of the States after the First World War and the effects of the economic order on each of its main characters, some of whom interact across the individual novels, some of whom are more or less contained in one. Haven’t read it in decades, and read it mostly to learn how to imitate Dos Passos’ writing style (went through some Hemingway and Faulkner in school with the same intent), but I do remember it being unique and engaging, and leftist throughout, which was refreshing, confirming and even gratifying in the early ’70’s when I was a lad in school.

    2)Irene Nemirovsky was a Russian-Jewish emigre to France, her family arriving, fortune mostly intact, after the Russian Revolution. By the 1930’s, she had established herself as a professional writer– in French(!)– David Golder being her most successful work. As the war drew ever nearer wrote for ultra-nationalist French periodicals, converting to Roman Catholicism in 1939. She was denied French citizenship the year prior, eventually rounded up and sent to her death in the camps– but not before she had made her way through the first drafts of what is her most famous work today: Suite Francaise, two novellas out what she had planned to be as many as five, had she lived to write them. The manuscripts had been kept by a surviving daughter, unread, for decades, under the assumption they were a private diary. Once published in 2004, Suite Francaise became an international best-seller, translated into 38 languages, and selling over 2 million copies. Having read Suite Francaise as it is–a fine start, with national scope, cut down to size by her killers– I can only mourn for the longer, larger epic of a book it was meant to be.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, jhNY, for your knowledgeable and fascinating comment.

      Somehow I’ve never gotten to The USA Trilogy; I should. I HAVE read “History” — I believe you were one of the people who recommended it to me — and it’s an absolutely wonderful/compelling/depressing novel. Definitely an epic work.

      I had barely heard of Irene Nemirovsky until seeing your comment. What a tragedy — on a human level, and on a literary level — that her amazing life was cut short. Definitely on my to-read list.


      • Nemirovsky’s (note the ‘i’ — I had it wrong before) is a most interesting case, and book. She had no Jewish characters in what she had written for her planned epic, and may have been, for years, more than little uncomfortable about her ethnicity, and more interested in becoming a citizen of France– though events larger than herself entered into her doings and plans after the German invasion. Her most successful work before, the novel David Golder,is in most accounts I’ve seen, a less than flattering portrayal of a Jewish banker and his family. Golder, like her actual family, originally hailed from Kiev…

        I see Suite Francaise as a book arrested, a miracle to have survived, but what there is of it is worth a read.

        John Dos Passos was a once much more widely read than he has been of late.

        from wikipedia:
        “In 1920 his first novel, One Man’s Initiation: 1917, was published, and in 1925 his novel, Manhattan Transfer, became a commercial success. In 1928, he went to the Soviet Union to study socialism, and later became a leading participant in the 1935 First American Writers Congress sponsored by the communist-leaning League of American Writers. He was in Spain in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War, when the murder of his friend José Robles soured his attitude toward communism, and led to severing his relationship with fellow writer Ernest Hemingway.

        Dos Passos is best known for his U.S.A. trilogy, which consists of the novels The 42nd Parallel (1930), 1919 (1932) and The Big Money (1936). In 1998, the Modern Library ranked the U.S.A. Trilogy 23rd on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.

        By the 1950s, his political views had changed dramatically, and in the 1960s, he campaigned for presidential candidates Barry Goldwater and Richard M. Nixon.”

        His allegiances, I believe, more than the quality of writing or his authorial vision, cost him the readership he might once have expected to enjoy in his posterity.

        If for no other reason than to be better informed about important novels and writers in the 20th century, Dos Passos deserves attention.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Not the first writer to be uncomfortable with her or his ethnicity.

          Definitely true that some once widely read authors, like Dos Passos, end up not being read as widely. I’d also put Sinclair Lewis in that category, as well as Willa Cather, James Fenimore Cooper, and W. Somerset Maugham, among others.

          Interesting that Dos Passos’ ideological move to the right may have affected his popularity. Sort of like when “Li’l Abner” cartoonist Al Capp got all conservative on us.

          Well said, jhNY!


  9. Dave, I’m still having a few problems with your blog, although it might be on my end. I think I posted two comments, one about Michener, and one to J.J. thanking him (and you) for the Kesey book recommendations, as well as his mentioning “Dune” and the “Foundation” trilogy. I can’t remember if I received comments back on those, so who knows what happened to them. I think I told you I sprained my right hand and have to wear a splint for a couple of weeks, so it just may be me not typing very well.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Scrolling down, I see five comments by you, Kat Lib, so hopefully everything’s there that you posted!

      Typing with a splint is no fun. From the dog-caused accident? Hope you don’t have to wear it too much longer.


      • I may be going crazy but I still don’t see the one about Michener where I talked about how much my father enjoyed reading his books. I do remember talking about “The Drifters,” and also how Dad’s favorite was I think “The Source.” Oh well, it wasn’t exactly anything profound.
        And yes, my dog did cause me to fall, but at least this time I don’t need surgery. He gave me a shot of cortisone and I have to wear this splint for 2 weeks. Ugh, it’s such a pain, but at least I didn’t break it!

        Liked by 1 person

        • Kat Lib, I pasted the comment you’re referring to below: (I can see it, but maybe there’s some glitch on your end that prevents you from seeing it?)

          Hi Dave, well, I most certainly agree that “War and Peace” is indeed the most epic novel I’ve ever read, especially since it was the centerpiece of the course I took on Tolstoy back in college. I don’t know if “Anna Karenina” would be considered as epic. Nor do I know if “Doctor Zhivago” by Boris Pasternak would either. I was also going to mention Charles Dickens, especially “Bleak House,” although “David Copperfield” came to mind first as it was my first work by that author.

          My father was a huge fan of James Michener, and I think I read some of novels, but I can’t remember which ones. The only one I really remember reading was “The Drifters,” and I’ll quote from Wiki here: “The novel follows six young characters from diverse backgrounds and various countries as their paths meet and they travel together through parts of Spain, Portugal, Morocco and Mozambique. The story is told from the perspective of the narrator, George Fairbanks, who is an investment analyst for the fictional company World Mutual Bank in Switzerland. Mr. Fairbanks is connected with nearly every character in some way, and they all seem to open up to him throughout the novel in one way or another.” I think this one resonated with me because it was published in 1971, just two years after I and two of my best girlfriends traveled around Europe for nine weeks, although the only one of the countries mentioned in the book that we spent time in was Spain (where we had such a crazy but great time!). We were sorry not to make it to Portugal. Anyway, I think my dad’s favorite Michener was “The Source.”

          I always wanted to read “Sometimes a Great Notion,” I hope the recommendations of you and J.J. will spur me to do so! I also agree with J.J. in including the three first novels of “Dune” and the “Foundation” trilogy.

          I’m sure I’ll come up with more as the week progresses!


            • OK, Dave, I guess I AM going crazy as I now can see both comments. I usually place the blame on upgrading to Windows 10 every time something weird happens. When I tried to upgrade my MS Office Products, I ended up having my entire system wiped of basically everything, including all the work I’d saved in Word and Excel. So now I don’t have any of those on my system because I’m afraid to do so, and haven’t yet been able to take it over to the Geek Squad.
              Anyway, I received a gift card from B&N the other day, so I just placed an order for Maria Semple’s new release, Liane Moriarty’s new release, and I also bought a paperback edition of “Sometimes a Great Notion.” Of course I went over the amount of the gift card, but I figured I needed a small treat for myself. 🙂

              Liked by 1 person

              • I’m not a fan of Windows software. Sorry that the “upgrade” has given you trouble, Kat Lib. You’re not alone in having that experience!

                Congratulations on ordering those three novels! I also almost always go over the amount on gift cards when it comes to books. 🙂

                Would love to hear what you think of “Sometimes a Great Notion” when you read it! I have about 100 pages left.


                • Hi Dave, sorry to keep posting here, but I think I’ve been spending way too much time on columns on Salon and HP today, and I am having agita about the upcoming elections. This blog is my on-line oasis of sanity in an otherwise crazy world. I did at least receive my package from B&N today, but I can’t start reading any of them until I finish “The Bean Trees,” which I must admit I’m having trouble slogging my way through. I’m not sure if it’s my current state of mind, or whether I so love Kingsolver’s “Prodigal Summer,” “Flight Behavior,” and “The Poisonwood Bible” especially, it just doesn’t have the same impact (not to mention “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle”).

                  Liked by 1 person

                  • Kat Lib, the election IS rather nerve-wracking, with the Clinton-Trump race tightening (or so the media claims). While Clinton has some ethical issues, that FBI letter was outrageous so close to the election, and certainly seems to be the main reason the election is allegedly getting closer. If only the FBI released letters about the many unethical things Trump has done and is doing, but of course most of the FBI is a bunch of Republican conservatives. Nice of Obama to appoint a Republican conservative FBI director. (Not.) Democrats shouldn’t give the GOP an inch; those right-wingers take advantage of any show of bipartisanship.

                    Kingsolver’s later novels (starting with “The Poisonwood Bible” in the late ’90s) are definitely better than her earlier good-but-not great novels!


                    • More specifically, its the NY offices of the FBI, with its deep ties and allegiances to Rudy Giuliani, that’s behind much of the mischief.

                      Had the NY FBI not been so transparently biased by basing their investigations on a book of agit-prop behind which is the Breitbart folk, they might have made more damage than they have done.

                      After all, we’ve seen this plot about a million times: noble rogue agents, just a few, but enough to get around the chafing rules and regs that their corrupt superiors would hold them to, risk everything and bring down bosses and the original evil targets of their heroic actions. Tom Clancy has written it a few times I’m sure.

                      Having endured and been complicit in the coup of 2000, the media as a whole cannot bring itself to mention as such this newest example of attempted coup, which, no matter how the election goes, proves we have much more in common with banana republics than we like to think. Much more.

                      Liked by 1 person

                    • Thanks for the analysis, jhNY.

                      And, yes, the mainstream media doesn’t help — with its frequent refusal to put things in historical context, its right-leaning bias, and its profit-obsessed love of rating and circulation boosts. Heck, I’m sure much of the mainstream media was thrilled with the FBI shenanigans because getting-closer races spark more audience interest.

                      Yup, the U.S. indeed has its “banana republic”* aspects.

                      *A phrase reportedly coined by O. Henry!


    • I hear you, Bill. Certain iconic novels take on an almost mythical quality when we’ve heard about them for many years before finally reading them. One example of that for me was W. Somerset Maugham’s “Of Human Bondage,” which I finally got to a few months ago. Not sure ‘”Anna Karenina” is epic, but it’s definitely memorable!


  10. Dave, when I saw the first books from “Wheel of Time” and “Game of Thrones” I bought a mass market paperback of each, both of which languished on my shelves because they were both so long, and now that both have so many in each series I’m not sure I can make it thought one, not to mention the vast number of sequels upon sequels. My sister liked a TV series based on Diana Galbadon’s Outlander series, which involves time travels; as much as she wanted to read the books, they are close to the other series mentioned in length. She said to me that she is at a stage in her life that she doesn’t want to spend so much time on one book or series at age 70. She’s four years older than I, but I think I’m beginning to feel the same way; although I really want to reread “War and Peace” one of these days.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Compared to ‘The Wheel of Time’ (14 novels), ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ is brief (5, so far). True, each of the five novels are over 700 pages and the third and fifth are over 1,000. Personally, I think they’re fairly well-paced. I would recommend reading the first novel at least, ‘A Game of Thrones’, which is around 700-800 pages. If you’re sufficiently intrigued, read on. At the snail’s pace of his writing, I don’t think you have to worry about George R.R. Martin rushing any more out in the series any time soon so there’s plenty of time.

      Liked by 1 person

      • The length of door-stoppers can indeed be reading stoppers. I get to maybe four or five novels a year in the 700-1,000-page range, but I’m usually thinking I could be reading two or three novels in the same amount of time. A dilemma, because some “tomes” are must-reads.

        And, yes, if one gets hooked on long first books of a series… 🙂


  11. Hi Dave, well, I most certainly agree that “War and Peace” is indeed the most epic novel I’ve ever read, especially since it was the centerpiece of the course I took on Tolstoy back in college. I don’t know if “Anna Karenina” would be considered as epic. Nor do I know if “Doctor Zhivago” by Boris Pasternak would either. I was also going to mention Charles Dickens, especially “Bleak House,” although “David Copperfield” came to mind first as it was my first work by that author.
    My father was a huge fan of James Michener, and I think I read some of novels, but I can’t remember which ones. The only one I really remember reading was “The Drifters,” and I’ll quote from Wiki here: “The novel follows six young characters from diverse backgrounds and various countries as their paths meet and they travel together through parts of Spain, Portugal, Morocco and Mozambique. The story is told from the perspective of the narrator, George Fairbanks, who is an investment analyst for the fictional company World Mutual Bank in Switzerland. Mr. Fairbanks is connected with nearly every character in some way, and they all seem to open up to him throughout the novel in one way or another.” I think this one resonated with me because it was published in 1971, just two years after I and two of my best girlfriends traveled around Europe for nine weeks, although the only one of the countries mentioned in the book that we spent time in was Spain (where we had such a crazy but great time!). We were sorry not to make it to Portugal. Anyway, I think my dad’s favorite Michener was “The Source.”
    I always wanted to read “Sometimes a Great Notion,” I hope the recommendations of you and J.J. will spur me to do so! I also agree with J.J. in including the three first novels of “Dune” and the “Foundation” trilogy.
    I’m sure I’ll come up with more as the week progresses!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I definitely think “War and Peace” is more epic than “Anna Karenina” — which, though sweeping in its way, is more in the (doomed) romance department.

      “Doctor Zhivago” is an interesting case — panoramic but, like “Anna Karenina,” more love-affair focused. Lara and all that…

      Michener is certainly an epic author, from everything I’ve heard. Within a month, I’ll be reading one of his novels for the first time!

      Wasn’t sure what I would think of “Sometimes a Great Notion,” but it’s even better than I expected. There’s a LOT to it, as I noted in my column, and it’s often riveting.

      Thanks, Kat Lib, for the excellent and wide-ranging comment!


    • Howdy, Kat Lib!

      — I always wanted to read “Sometimes a Great Notion,” I hope the recommendations of you and J.J. will spur me to do so! —

      Average annual precipitation in Oregon varies widely by region, according to the U.S. National Climatic Data Center. It ranges from a low of about 9.7 inches circa the Owyhee Dam in the southeastern quadrant to a high of about 90.7 inches circa the Detroit Dam in the northwestern quadrant. And the rainfall in Ken Kesey’s Wakonda appears to be less like that in the former area and more like that in the latter area, based on my interpretation of the author’s presentation.

      If I ever were to be stranded deep in the hot sands of North Africa’s Sahara, then “Sometimes a Great Notion” would be the first, last and only novel I would read to slake my thirst.


      Liked by 1 person

      • Great comment, J.J.! Made me try to think of other novels with lots of precipitation. “The Grapes of Wrath,” “The Mill on the Floss,” and “Bleak House” are three that come to mind.


  12. Great suggestions. I’ve read some of your list and agree with your assessments.Would Gone with the Wind qualify? There was a sequel by another author, not as well done but it brought Scarlett and Rhett back together in Ireland.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think “Gone With the Wind” indeed qualifies as an epic novel — with its Civil War and Reconstruction Era backdrop, among other things. I don’t like the book’s racism, but it’s still a sweeping work. Thanks, energywriter!


        • I agree about Scarlett. By the end of the novel she is as self-centered as at the beginning, meaning that she’s caught in the same cycle and if she never gets back with Rhett (and I don’t think they will; Rhett is already burnt by her and is too smart to get caught in her manipulative net again), then it will be some other hapless fool. Rhett is the true hero of that novel. I think he’s even more heroic in the novel than in the movie, where he was Clark Gableized.

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            • I actually thought Melanie was the true heroine in GWTW, with her loyalty to her husband, cad though he was, and to Scarlett who never appreciated her, but only seemed to use her whenever she could. I think Rhett was the one who truly appreciated Melanie’s innate goodness, and I thought they would have made a better couple than Scarlett (or anyone for that matter). The saddest part of the book to me was when she dies and it seems only then did Scarlett and Ashley realize what they had lost.

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                • I read the novel back in junior high, but most of what I recall about GWTW comes having seen the movie more than I ever wanted to, once when I was younger, once when I lived Atlanta in the early ’70’s (you can imagine all the boos and hisses, especially Sherman’s March). I then had a friend who was obsessed with the movie and always wanted to watch the DVD; I’d smile weakly and say “Sure.” The tipping point to me was when we were watching it when she fell asleep part way through, and I had just fractured my hip so I couldn’t stop it or turn it off. She then had to go back and restart it, and I was about ready to tear my hair out! 🙂


                  • Yes, Kat Lib, seeing a movie based on a novel can help us remember the novel! I saw the “Gone With the Wind” film only once — in college, soon after I read the book. Or maybe it was just before I read the book? Frankly, I don’t…remember. (Paraphrasing Rhett there.)

                    Sounds like you watched the movie too much for your liking, but you described the experience in a very entertaining way! I think “The Wizard of Oz” is the only film I’ve seen more than a few times — WAY more than a few times. 🙂


                    • As a Son of the South, i was sent to the movies, my little sister in tow, during one of the re-releases of GWTW when I was a pre-teen. The sheer scope and span of the thing was awesome, and we were both overwhelmed by the fire and the by the huge sprawl of the wounded and dying– to the point that a disturbing sort of numbness filled us both after, and for some time. I wish I’d been older and better prepared for it all, or even better, exempted from this particular rite of passage altogether, though in my defense, what I got out of it most of all was the horror and futility of war. My sympathies, though not entirely, were most of all visited on the slaves, as it was after all around 1962, and there was much happening around me whose sorry roots were deep in the glorified but afflicted past of my part of the country.

                      I am old enough, at four years, in 1955, to have met a man 104 years old, who lived on property belonging to a distant relative in Virginia. He had, as a child, BEEN property on that property, and had chosen to work there after emancipation. His employers, upon his retirement, had built two cabins for him– one for himself, and one for a daughter who took care of him. For a half hour I’d guess, he recounted what he could remember from his earliest days–his role in helping to hide the family silver from Federal foragers, helping lift a feather mattress so that a preacher wanted by those same Federal troops might slip between below and out of sight of prying eyes, then the replacing of a sick aunt on top of the bedding. He had been sick off and on for a while when I met him, so our visit was of anything, longer than it should have been– but Uncle Robert, as he was known to all, had been eager to make my acquaintance, for which I am ever grateful. When, at our visit’s close, he rose up in bed to hug me, something like electricity ran through every part of me, and I was forever changed. I like to think that hug made me immune to the worst sort of nostalgia and notions of racial superiority loose around me in those long-ago days– made most lovely and splendorous by cinematic vehicles such as Gone With the Wind.

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                    • Wow — jhNY. That is an amazing, moving, life-changing experience you had, and wonderfully told. To have actually talked face-to-face with someone who went through the evil, horrific experience of slavery in the American South…

                      Yes, no more powerful way to inoculate one’s self against the “charms” of the “Gone With the Wind” movie or novel — both incredible creations, but rife with racism and historical distortions.


              • I suppose the irony of that is that Melanie died whereas Rhett lived. Melanie seemed to simply NOT see duplicity, as Rhett assessed her. He told Scarlett that she couldn’t conceive of ill intent in anyone else and so could not see it when it was right there beside her for years, as her time spent with Scarlett attests. Melanie was saintly and died saintly. Rhett did grow a bit. Initially, he was attracted to Scarlett, admired many of her qualities and, of course, became smitten with her and tolerated far more from her than he ever would have otherwise. He obviously grew from the experience. Also, although Rhett was a profiteer and gun runner, he was actually very ethical and had a strong moral code that prevailed and helped him survive through the Civil War, Reconstruction and Beyond. He had lost his beloved daughter and had been hurt so much by Scarlett that his love for her was drained. I think he admired Melanie immensely although I don’t think sexual attraction entered into his mind regarding her, so I think they would have been destined to be very platonic, close friends.

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                • Yes, I’m sure you’re right about Melanie and Rhett, but if I recall, Melanie was the only one allowed in to see him after his daughter died and convinced him to finally to have her properly buried. Also, I never thought Ashley deserved Melanie. As you say, Rhett was no saint, but never tried to hide that, and he did have a strong moral code and showed it when necessary.

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  13. It’s been awhile since I’ve read any of James Michener’s novels, but I immediately thought of his books when I considered your topic. I was on a real Michener kick earlier in my life, after reading “Chesapeake”, which takes place in a locality that I am very familiar with: the Eastern Shore of Maryland. I found this novel to be very well researched and very compelling as it followed the generations of some families from pre-colonial time through modern day. I liked it so much that I followed up with “The Source” (about Israel) and “The Covenant” (South Africa). Like “Chesapeake”, both of the books (as well as many other Michener novels) select a geographical area and delve into the history and culture of that area by following the experiences of several families through the generations. These were enjoyable reads that offered quite a bit of historical insight and perspective. I learned quite a lot. Since it’s been years, I may try to pick up another of his historical, epic works. Any suggestions?

    (P.S. – Although I’ve never read these, my wife was excited about this topic, and told me that some of her most enjoyable reads fall into this category: McCullough’s “The Thornbirds”, Auel’s “The Clan of the Cave Bear” series, Follet’s “The Pillars of the Earth”, and Jakes’ “Kent Family Chronicles” (which I know has been mentioned several time by your readers in past posts).

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    • Thank you, drb, for mentioning James Michener and describing his approach so well! You’re the third person (here and on Facebook) who has mentioned Michener in reaction to my post — mentions which have greatly increased my interest in finally trying that author. Will grab one of his books during my November library visit!

      And thanks to your wife for her suggestions! I put them on my list, too.


      • For what it’s worth – all three of the books I mentioned were enjoyable, but I have to say that “The Source” and “The Covenant” explore histories and cultures that are a bit more complex than “Chesapeake”, perhaps making them better selections.

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          • One last Michener comment: “The Source” (Israel) was published in 1965 – before the Six Day War (the first of many major Arab/Israeli conflicts). “The Covenant” (South Africa) was published in 1980 – while Apartheid was still going strong. It a shame Michener has passed on. It would be interesting if he could write some sequels that would bring his families up-to-date with the present time.

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            • That would be VERY interesting, drb! South Africa and Israel are such different countries now — the former, of course, no longer apartheid-ruled and the latter no longer a “scrappy underdog.”


  14. Howdy, Dave!

    — Your favorite epic novels? —

    Henryk Sienkiewicz’s “Quo Vadis?” and his awesome Trilogy (“With Fire and Sword,” “The Deluge” and “Fire in the Steppe”) are certainly among my favorites in this category. However, it also includes the likes of Richard Adams’ “Watership Down,” Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series (“Foundation,” “Foundation and Empire,” “Second Foundation,” “Foundation’s Edge” and three other books I have not yet read), Joseph Conrad’s “Lord Jim,” Frank Herbert’s Dune series (“Dune,” “Dune Messiah,” “Children of Dune” and three other books I have not yet read), Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” and even John Updike’s Rabbit series (“Rabbit, Run,” “Rabbit Redux,” “Rabbit Is Rich,” “Rabbit at Rest” and “Rabbit Remembered”).

    — How would you define what makes a novel epic? —

    I believe U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart may have put it best when delivering his concurring opinion in the epic Jacobellis v. Ohio case, despite the contextual difference: “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description, and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it.” An example might be found in a consideration of what are arguably the two best novels of Jack Kerouac: “The Dharma Bums” and “On the Road.” I think the former is better than is the latter as a work of art, but I also think “On the Road” is an epic and “The Dharma Bums” is not an epic. Epically speaking, the crux of the difference between the two books appears to lie in noisy transcendence. (And this same quality is also why I would agree with you and disagree with bobess48 about the epicness of Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick.”)

    J.J. (Alias MugRuith1)

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      • Howdy, Brian Bess!

        — [I]t sounds like ‘epic’ means different things to different people. —

        I believe so, at least with respect to epic literature, making Dave’s query about our own definitions of the term an especially apt one this week.

        — I’m just curious by what you mean by “noisy transcendence”. —

        Philosophically, I basically read “On the Road” as a piece about Doing and “The Dharma Bums” as a piece about Not-Doing. I would argue both books — like a host of other great novels — similarly transcend the accounts of the people, places and things therein so as to make these works meaningful to many readers not in general ways but in particular ways. However, I also would argue each does it different from the other, with their divergent sounds easily discernible to my mind’s ear: “On the Road,” noisy; “The Dharma Bums,” not noisy.

        Doing is frequently noisy (and epic), and Not-Doing is frequently not noisy (and not epic): Andrew Miller pitching 7-2/3 scoreless innings in the 2016 American League Championship Series was epic (and noisy); my meditating for 20 minutes in the comfy chair today was not epic (and not noisy).

        “Moby-Dick” may be a whale of a tale, but it is also a mighty fine examination of obsession, its causes and its effects, with the book’s epic sounds reverberating through my mostly empty head, even now, more than 40 years since I first read it.


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    • Thank you, J.J.! Well said!

      Henryk Sienkiewicz does seem to be one of those authors who almost define epic. I spotted “With Fire and Sword” in my local library this month, grabbed it, and then saw it was about 1,200 pages. Not quite ready for that length now, but hopefully at some point…

      And thanks for naming several other renowned authors who can fit into the epic category with one book or a series. The fact that Updike’s “Rabbit” novels were each published roughly a decade apart is epic in itself.

      Yes, the “I know it when I see it” definition can work! Sometimes, novels are epic in ways we can’t necessarily explain, but we know they’re epic.

      Now on page 513 of the 715-page “Sometimes a Great Notion.” Tremendous novel — thanks again for recommending it!


      • — Henryk Sienkiewicz does seem to be one of those authors who almost define epic. —

        Thanks to Ana of the Geddy Lee Fans and you, I hope to read early next year one of his apparently nonepic novels, “Without Dogma.”

        — The fact that Updike’s “Rabbit” novels were each published roughly a decade apart is epic in itself. —

        Especially given the likeability/unlikeability of the central character! Poor Updike.

        Liked by 1 person

  15. You’ve offered up some fantastic examples in your discussion regarding epics. I always enjoy reading your knowledge-rich posts, Dave!

    I would certainly label Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” series as being an epic, or rather a series of epics. As you mentioned, the fantasy genre often lends itself to stories that are epic in nature, and “Wheel of Time” is no exception. Though I have yet to finish the sprawling series (14 books!), Jordan has crafted a world with so much depth in regards to histories, religions, regions, politics, cultures, and, on occasion, economies.

    While the citizens of this fantasy world are not divided so much by race like those in the world of Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” (hobbits, elves, dwarves, etc.), they are divided by culture. As is the case with real-world conflicts, some of these divisions trace back to age-old conflicts and key differences from people to people. If that scale does not boost a series’ ranking to earning the title of “epic,” I don’t know what does! Thanks for sharing!

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    • Thank you for the very kind words, JJ, and for the elegantly expressed comment!

      You’re right — fantasy fiction does lend itself to epic stories, something I should have emphasized more in my post. 🙂

      “Wheel of Time” sounds VERY intriguing and impressive; fourteen books — wow! I just looked on Wikipedia to find the title of the first one — “The Eye of the World” — and will look for it in my local library.

      Thanks again!

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      • If you ever get around to reading “Eye of the World,” I’d love to hear your thoughts! I’ve passed the book along to a handful of people and 3 out of 4 are now hooked to the series. It’s always a pleasure to spread good stories around, and your blog continues to help me build up my personal to-read list. Thank you for that!

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        • A 75% hooked rate sounds good to me! 🙂 Keeping my fingers crossed that my local library has “Eye of the World.”

          Thanks again for the recommendation, JJ, and glad you’re finding books to possibly read on this blog! I’ve read MANY novels recommended by commenters here, and have rarely been disappointed.

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  16. I don’t think all novels that are lengthy and also contain multiple characters are necessarily epic. Obviously, ‘War and Peace’ is an epic–it covers the lives of a few main characters and several secondary characters, including real-life figures Napoleon and Kutuzov. Tolstoy also plays God if any fiction writer ever did by swooping in and out of all of these characters’ inner thoughts and doubts, as if he’s shining a lantern into the deepest recesses of their souls.

    Victor Hugo’s ‘Les Miserables’ is very long and has several characters but, because so much of it focuses on one central character, Jean Valjean, it still has the quality of a character study. While it does include glimpses of several characters, it doesn’t have the same epic epochal quality of ‘War and Peace’.

    I also don’t consider ‘Moby-Dick’ an epic, primarily because it doesn’t contain a huge cast of characters and actually mostly takes place on the relatively small whaling vessel, the Pequod. The sea itself is vast and epic but the guys that are trapped on that boat with their obsessive captain seem quite small indeed, to me at least.

    Fantasy lends itself to an epic quality for many of the same reasons that ‘War and Peace’ is an epic. Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ is a prime example, as it depicts events that affect millions of people in an extremely varied world, even if the key figures at the center of it are a handful (and then simply a duo) of small hobbits.

    George R.R. Martin’s ‘Song of Ice and Fire’ is the likely successor to ‘Lord of the Rings’ for epic quality. By now, Martin’s fantasy world is just as complex as Tolkien’s and contains, arguably, even more characters in even more different settings. When I read ‘Song of Ice and Fire’, I see Westeros superimposed over a map of Western Europe while Essos, the region where Danaerys heads, is closer to the middle East and Eastern Europe. If Martin ever finishes the series before passing on from this life, it will indeed be one of the densest of epic fantasies ever written.

    The Harry Potter books don’t strike me as epic, actually. Most of the series takes place at Hogwarts, which strikes me as a gothic, distorted version of an old European castle. Some of it takes place in the surrounding area, with short stretches of time at the Weasleys, but it feels too claustrophobic to be epic to me personally.

    Other long books that I don’t consider epic. Most of Dickens’ novels, while having massive casts of characters, also feel too claustrophobic to be considered epic. I suppose ‘Bleak House’ would be as close to an epic as he wrote as it seems to take a bird’s-eye view of the literal and metaphorical fog of London that is pervasive throughout all segments of the society.

    Epic works seem to be more predominant in popular fiction such as those doorstop novels of James Michener (and the aforementioned epic fantasies) in the 20th century and beyond than they were in previous eras when there weren’t such strong distinctions between mainstream and genre fiction.

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    • Thanks for the great comment, bobess48!

      What might be considered an epic novel can definitely be a subjective thing, and your points about several books are well taken.

      One of these days I’ll get to “Song of Ice and Fire” (“Game of Thrones” on TV, of course), but from everything I’ve heard it is indeed epic — with its sprawl benefiting from being a series rather than a single book.

      I also thought of Dickens when writing the column, and agree that “Bleak House” comes closest to being epic among his works. Maybe “A Tale of Two Cities” second.

      I also thought about George Eliot’s fantastic “Middlemarch” and “Daniel Deronda,” but they seem too literary and character-oriented or something despite having a few “action” sequences. (Which proves your point that “epic works seem to be more predominant in popular fiction.”)

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    • I realized how anachronistic my phrasing was in my original comment above. Of course, there were no flashlights in Tolstoy’s time. Please change “shining a flashlight” to “shining a lantern”. I’m sure that if he had a flashlight he would have used it but he had to make do with candles and lanterns. Thanks, Dave!

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    • — Thanks to J.J. McGrath for recommending “Sometimes a Great Notion”! —

      And thanks to you for recommending Octavia E. Butler’s “Kindred”! I am a big fan of time travelogues across multiple media, encompassing novels such as Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” Edward Bellamy’s “Looking Backward,” Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine” and Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s “Slaughterhouse-Five”; films such as Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future series (“Back to the Future,” “Back to the Future, Part II” and “Back to the Future, Part III”), Terry Gilliam’s “Twelve Monkeys” and Harold Ramis’ “Groundhog Day”; and even television series such as “Time Tunnel.” Butler’s “Kindred” ranks among the best of them in any medium!

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      • You’re welcome, J.J.! Glad you liked “Kindred”! It IS a great time-travel novel, along with being an intense book about slavery, family ties, and more. It was recommended to me by “Ana,” who used to comment here frequently.

        I’m also a big fan of the time-travel genre. In addition to the terrific novels you mentioned, I also love in that genre Jack Finney’s “Time and Again,” Daphne du Maurier’s “The House on the Strand,” Audrey Niffenegger’s “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” Darryl Brock’s “If I Never Get Back,” and J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” among others.

        I remember “Time Tunnel” from my much younger days, and was hooked on it during its brief TV life.


        • — Glad you liked “Kindred”! —

          To say I liked it would be to damn it with faint praise: I loved it!

          — It was recommended to me by “Ana,” who used to comment here frequently. —

          Based on the conversations between Ana and you here at “DAOL,” I had anticipated “Kindred” would encompass a great story, but I had not expected Octavia E. Butler to be such a great prose stylist: On the Maxwell Perkins Edit-O-Meter, she rates 100 percent on the Ernest Hemingway scale and 0 percent on the Thomas Wolfe scale. Nice!

          (No offense, Tom: I actually do like both “Look Homeward, Angel” and “You Can’t Go Home Again.”)

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          • I’ll mentally change that “like” to “love,” as can be done literally on Facebook. 🙂 And I agree — Octavia Butler’s prose style is excellent. One of these days I’d like to read some of her other books; I believe, for instance, that she wrote a couple of sci-fi series — infused with the social metaphors that a lot of the best sci-fi contains.

            Ha! Your Hemingway/Wolfe line!


            • — Ms. Butler’s prose is simply beautiful. —


              — Her “Parable” series is full of gems. —

              I will have to add both Earthseed books — “Parable of the Sower” and “Parable of the Talents” — to the To-Read area of my shelves, a section currently measuring about 5 board-feet: The more I attempt to get ahead of it, the more I fall behind!

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              • A couple of weeks ago, at our Staff Development Day at the library, the speaker did a program on readers’ advisory. She had us pull a book off a cart (books that were pulled at random from our collection). She gave us five minutes to “speed read” i.e. look over the cover, jacket design, verbiage, and scim through the novel to get a sense of the flavor of the book. Obviously, we could only get a vague idea of the story but by going through various pages of the novel we could get an idea of the “shape” of the story. So the one I picked was Octavia Butler’s ‘Parable of the Sower’, primarily because I’ve heard people on this blog recommend her. I knew she was primarily a science fiction author but this particular book is obviously aimed at non-science fiction readers based on the jacket verbiage and the cover design–a pair of female African American hands turning pages of an open book, presumably a Bible? It’s promoted as inspirational with the blurred edges of the image, as if this was a missionary or an African receiver of missionary work. All of the dystopian aspects of the novel are toned down to be almost non-existent although the novel clearly takes place after some biological disaster. Anyway, we were supposed to make notes of our impressions. After it was over, she had time for a few people to get up and recount their impressions of the book. Although I didn’t check it out at the moment I did file away that I would hopefully at some point in time read either that or another of her novels. Just wanted to point out how some books are marketed, which is often not quite the same as what you will find between the covers.

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                • — Just wanted to point out how some books are marketed, which is often not quite the same as what you will find between the covers. —

                  Very true. And a similar effect can be observed in other areas, as exemplified by a friend’s apocryphal description of the marketing tagline of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” when the play was presented more than five decades ago as an episode of the television series “Play of the Week” with Zero Mostel and Burgess Meredith in the principal roles: “Laugh Riot of the Year!”

                  Liked by 1 person

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