WSIRN Ep 173: Clocking in at the reading factory

After a year of focusing on reading over 100 books while recovering from a running injury, today’s guest Natalie Van Waning is sprinting enthusiastically toward many readers’ worst nightmare: Looooooong books. When I say long, I mean use them as a doorstop, tweak your wrist getting them off the shelf, 40-hours-on-Audible books. Natalie asked me to help her focus on quality instead of quantity, so I’m all geared up to recommend sweeping multi-generational sagas, tour-guide novels, and heart-tugging family stories.

Let’s get to it!

What Should I Read Next #173: Clocking in at the reading factory with Natalie Van Waning

You can connect with Natalie Van Waning on her blog.


Books mentioned in this episode:
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If you’d like to support your local indie, check out And by all means, go grab one of these from your local library!

• Author Rick Bragg (try My Southern Journey: True Stories from the Heart of the South
Walkable City Rules: 101 Steps to Making Better Places, by Jeff Speck
Before We Were Yours, by Lisa Wingate
The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas
Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon
The Heart’s Invisible Furies, by John Boyne
The Harry Potter series, by J. K. Rowling
Beach Music, by Pat Conroy
Middlesex, by Jeffery Eugenides
The Address, by Fiona Davis
The Masterpiece, by Fiona Davis
The Dollhouse, by Fiona Davis
Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Wolf
Ulysses, by James Joyce
Climbing the Stairs, by Padma Venkatraman
Family Poems for Every Day of the week: Poemas Familiares Para Cada Dia de la Semana, by Francisco X. Alarcón
Ahimsa, by Supriya Kelkar
Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee
The Island of Sea Women, by Lisa See
The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver
A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving
The World According to Garp, by John Irving
I Know This Much is True, by Wally Lamb
She’s Come Undone, by Wally Lamb

Also mentioned:

Is listening to an audiobook “cheating”? via Daniel Willingham
WSIRN Ep 134: Audiobooks for the whole family to binge, with Ben Huntington


 What do YOU think Natalie would enjoy reading next? And how do you feel about looooooong books? Tell us in the comments section!


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  1. Stacey says:

    You probably know this already but the film of The Hours was based on a novel by Michael Cunningham. I am also seeking out big books this year, both because I love a sweeping, immersive novel and to force myself to slow down a bit. I’ll have to check out I Know This Much is True.

  2. Jaime says:

    I love the Outlander series and ALWAYS recommend them in audio format – the narration is wonderful and very helpful with some of the Scottish dialect and pronunciation.

    • Kristin says:

      I read these on paper and didn’t realize how long they really were until I looked at the length on audio! 30-55 hours!!! Those are some LONG books! I haven’t read the last one or two (my life with two little kids doesn’t allow for the epic reading marathons I did with the rest) so maybe audio is the answer. Thanks for the recommendation!

      • Jaime says:

        You’re welcome! I think the audio versions will make you fall in love with the story (especially Jamie and Claire) all over again!

  3. Kristin W says:

    I have loved audio books for years (I credit audio books for my marriage…my now husband and I lived 6 hours apart for 4 years while we were dating and there is no way I would have done that drive monthly without my books-on-CD!) and I’m so glad they are becoming more accessible! Though I don’t do epic drives anymore, I listen while commuting, cleaning and sewing and 42 of 92 books I read last year were on audio! If you want to listen faster, I believe it does take a little practice and work up to it gradually and sometimes a narrator takes a little getting used to before you can speed it up. I am up to 1.5x on books and podcasts now!

      • Nancy says:

        My husband listens to podcasts at 1.5X and it raises my blood pressure! It makes me anxious to listen that way so I’ve decided to just take my time listening.

  4. Deborah Ball says:

    seOh wow just finished listening and what a gift to myself! I was so excited to have read all the recommendations, but then again I am 64 and have been reading longer than either one of you gals! With the guest being a nurse AND loving sweeping historical stories, Abraham Verghese Cutting for Stone is one of my all time favorites and a definite reread. As a Stanford Medical professor his medical interweaving with interpersonal drama is so on target. Please recommend this book. I went back and read all his others, but this is by far his best work! And approximately 540+ pages!

    • Lynn says:

      I loved this episode…it resonated for a lot of reasons…mainly that I didn’t set a reading goal this year in hopes that I would pick up longer books that I shy away from during a year I have a reading goal. I think this episode was a push for me to finally pick up Poisonwood Bible!

      Yes, yes, yes to Pachinko and I’d echo the recommendation of Cutting for Stone from another commenter as well!

    • Loved Cutting for Stone! We read it for Book Club several years ago. OUr book club age range is 25-72- love the diversity. I’ve also read his book Tennis Partner, which was different than Cutting for Stone, but still a good read.

  5. Becky says:

    The two time periods mentioned with the Fiona Davis books made me think of Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver. It’s “only” 480 pages, but it might be a good option since Natalie liked something else by that author. 🙂

  6. Barb says:

    There’s always “A Suitable Boy”. Wikipedia says “A Suitable Boy is a novel by Vikram Seth, published in 1993. At 1,349 pages and 591,552 words, the book is one of the longest novels ever published in a single volume in the English language.”. It was so big and heavy I actually couldn’t hold up the hardcover and had to read it sitting at the table! If you like Rohinton Mistry, this might be a good one.

  7. Carolyn says:

    I read almost all my long reads on Audible which I would recommend. Once you get used to listening to longer books some over 50 hours they don’t seem so daunting. I’ve gotten through some books I don’t think I would have enjoyed as much if I read them in book form. Some of my favorites are The Count of Monte Cristo, Outlander series, The Winds of War, The Goldfinch, 11/22/63 & Lonesome Dove.

    • I really thought Lonesome Dove was going to be one of Anne’s picks for me. It sounds like a “me” book. I heard The Goldfinch was long, but super disappointing by a couple of the “bookies” so I have avoided it. 11/22/63 is on my list and Outlander. I haven’t heard of “The Winds of War”- always humbled by the vast number of books out there and not knowing or reading all of them. “Winds of War” sounds like a great read espiceally due to my love of WWII. Love historical fiction. Thanks for the recommendations.

  8. Stacy W says:

    I think Natalie would enjoy Ken Follett… Pillars of the Earth, or his Century Trilogy. These are 900 plus pages sweeping, epic stories.

      • Maggie Bowling says:

        I also stopped reading Pillars of the Earth for the same reason. I see that many people are recommending Outlander. I loved the entire Outlander series, but I do want to warn you that it does include three (that I can remember right now) pretty graphic instances of rape throughout the series.There were also a few other instances where I did not like how the male characters were treating women, but I think most of those instances were supposed to highlight some of the difference in attitude between the multiple time periods, and I could get past them. All in all, they are eight huge books, so there is way more to the story than the few scenes I didn’t care for and I really enjoyed the story. I just wanted to make sure you knew this, in case no one else had warned you.

  9. Krista says:

    Yes, you should read Outlander. It has the multiple time periods, it has wonderful settings you can learn about, each one is long and there are 8 of them. I did a combination of audio and page reading and loved the experience.

  10. Brandy says:

    I want to hear some of Natalie’s favorite Audiobooks! I love a good Audiobook but often have trouble getting into them if the author isn’t absolutely exceptional.

    • If you like YA recommend The Selection series by Kiera Cass on audio- dystopian, coming of age novel. “Before we Were Yours” by Lisa Wingate. Another YA audio suggestion: Tell me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum, Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things by Jenny Lawson (nonficiton- memoire- hilarious yet not). The first Jenny Lawson book I listened to was “Let’s Pretend This Never Happened: A MOstly True Memoir”- both excelllent. Echo by Pam Monz Ryan. Fanigril by Rainbow Rowell

  11. Kate says:

    2 recommends: Because of what Natalie said about Pat Conroy & her interest in Owen Meany, I’d highly recommend Martin Marten by Brian Doyle, really all of his novels are fantastic & all have the elements of spiritual and philosophical undertones you mentioned. This one is a coming of age story about a boy and a marten (the animal) growing up on Mt. Hood (in Oregon). The writing is beautiful. It’s multigenerational but the community in the little town on Mount Hood is what makes up family, including those with warts and all. There’s one character that reminds me of Owen. Sadly, Doyle died of brain cancer last year while only in his 50s. This book also works well on audio, but the audio I’d strongly recommend is 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I’d never read it before, but it is another beautifully written story and it is long!

  12. Sandra says:

    I’ve just finished Kristin Lavransdatter (follows her life in Medieval Norway from childhood, plenty of ups and downs) and I think Natalie might enjoy it. It’s actually a trilogy and each book is divided into three parts which I think helped it read pretty quickly for something that comes in at over 1100 pages. The advantage is that if it’s not for you you can always just finish the first book (just under 300 pages I think). Sort of like DNFing without DNFing.

  13. Patti says:

    I Know this Much to Be True!!! Absolute genius recommendation. I had no idea it was that long-it just swept me away. Beautifully written. Natalie will love this book. It’s a must.

  14. Elise says:

    Natalie, I hope you really enjoy A Prayer for Owen Meany! I am one of those readers who count it among my favorites. It’s also one that takes me back to a specific time and place. I bought a cheap trade paperback copy to read on a six hour flight. It sucked me in so completely, I barely looked up from it the entire flight. After that, I also read The World According to Garp, which I loved, but I never recommend it to people. Once I did recommend it to a friend – a literary kindred spirit – and he told me he wished he hadn’t read it, because it left him with images he couldn’t get out of his head. It is more extreme and odd and disturbing than Owen Meany, but I love it because it is simultaneously funny and tragic and life-affirming. I read it before I had kids … I am not sure it would be so easy to read now that I’m a parent.

  15. Katie says:

    I have similar taste to Natalie and right now I’m reading The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai and am loving it! Also, Goldfinch by Donna Tartt would be a good one to check out, and Sara Donati’s Into the Wilderness series (a must for any Outlander fan).

  16. Kate says:

    I’ve listened to many of Pat Conroy’s novels and they are wonderful. The narrator’s southern accent transports me. I’m definitely pro-audiobook, especially if the narrators have an accent.

    I also like to re-read/re-listen to favorites to experience them differently. I’ve done that with Louise Penny and Sarah Addison Allen to name a few

    Both Poisonwood Bible and Cutting for Stone have been on my list (and shelf) for years…maybe it’s finally time to crack them open!

    • Armand Gamache series was going to be up there with my top 5 favorite reads. I haven’t listened to that series on audio- maybe I’ll have to do that. It’s sometimes hard for me to justify going back and listening/re-reading a book with my TBR overflowing. Do you have favorite Louise Penny? I’ve read all of them.

  17. Christine Scott says:

    I also love a long novel, and have already read and loved all of Anne’s recommendations!

    I second the recommendations of The Goldfinch and Ken Follet’s trilogies. I also suggest East of Eden by John Steinbeck, and Hawaii by James Michener.

  18. April says:

    The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver is another long read. It’s my all time favorite and I also loved many of the books mentioned by both Natalie and Anne in this episode.

  19. My immediate thought was that Natalie would love The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough. Definitely one you would call “sweeping”!

    Personally I think A Prayer for Owen Meany and The World According to Garp are extremely different. (I gave them 5 stars and 1 star respectively.) I highly recommended A Prayer for Owen Meany on audio — it’s the only way to truly experience “The Voice.”

    • Bookies read The Thornbirds a couple of years ago. It was “average” for me. I ended up reading “Prayer for Owen Meany” right after this interview. I wasn/t “gushing about it”- 4 stars in my eye.

  20. Cindy says:

    In listening to today’s posdcast I have enjoyed both books you suggested to Nathalie. If she is a Wally Lamb fan, a “Big Book” I think she would also enjoy is Anne Marie MacDonald’s “Fall on Your Knees”. At times this is a hard to read story with uncomfortable topics, but it is a beautifully written multi decade family story, with great character development.

  21. SoCalLynn says:

    This is an old book, but I really enjoyed it because it is “a sweeping epic” of a story. The Far Pavillions by MM Kaye. (Please do not ever watch the miniseries. It is terrible.)

  22. A says:

    If Middlesex is one of your favorites and you’re relistening to your favorites on audio… you MUST listen to Middlesex on Audio. It is also one of my favorite novels, and my #1 favorite audiobook. The narrator is astounding and does a fantastic job with Greek accents and bringing the many different family members to life in their own ways.

  23. Valerie says:

    I very much enjoyed this episode. I too am a fan of sweeping family sagas and novels that span many years.(I’ve added Beach Music to my goodreads TBR list). A Prayer for Owen Meaney is one of my very favorite books and one that I have reread several times. A book we read for book club a couple of years ago has stayed with me and I think about it often and I know I will reread it — it’s call A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. A beautifully written book spanning several decades about the power of friendship and friends as family.

  24. Maureen Hayman says:

    I am currently listening by audio to The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. The paper back version is 973 pages whereas the audio is 16 cds. So far I am 81% through it.
    Art books are heavy. I am reading Women Artists, The Linda Nochlin Reader edited by Maura Reilly which is only 471 pages but with photos of many works of art makes for a heavy but fantastical great read.

  25. Jennifer says:

    The books in this thread are my own preferred genre. Additional ideas: Memoirs of a Geisha, Red Tent, Signature of All Things, and anything by Geraldine Brooks.

  26. Sue says:

    So glad to hear from a fellow Pat Conroy fan! I am also sad that he died before writing more novels. His writing is so unique…truly southern, with well drawn characters, and dramatic and hilarious all at the same time! My favorite Conroy title is The Prince of Tides, but I love them all.

  27. Since she likes long, multi-generational novels I think she’d enjoy Edward Rutherford. I’ve only read “Paris” by him but it was excellent. Definitely read the physical version as you’ll want to reference the family tree at the front of the book. I haven’t read his other novels but I will eventually! I think the next book I’ll read by him is “New York.”

  28. Marie says:

    So, this episode has made me realize that I have two long books on my physical reading shelf… I keep thinking I should get rid of them, but this show helped me see that if I want to read them, I should keep them and — gasp– perhaps actually read them: “And the Ladies of the Club… ” and “The Name of the Rose.”

    Natalie, thanks for providing some inspiration to dive back into big reads. For some reason, it’s been intimidating me… but as you and Anne pointed out, with the right book, the number of pages doesn’t matter. Cheers!

  29. CocoSwan says:

    Natalie should totally read Fall on your Knees byAnn-Marie MacDonald. It’s everything she likes in a story. Happy Reading

  30. Danielle says:

    Natalie, I’m sorry your group had a difficult time with Joyce’s Ulysses, which happens to be my favorite book for all time. It is easier if you read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man first. Then the beginning of Ulysses makes more sense and you know where you are. That is not widely written about. Virginia Woolf is also a favorite. With Mrs. Dalloway, she was trying to imitate Joyce by also making her novel take place in one day and using the same style of writing. It isn’t for everyone. I enjoyed this podcast! Thank you!

  31. Patricia says:

    Have you read “Echo” by Pam Munoz Ryan? It is a middle grade novel with nearly 600 pages. I LOVED the audiobook bc the music is a thread throughout the book and is incorporated in the recording. One of my favorites in 2018. Other thoughts I had while listening: “A Little Life” (700+ pages – very sad in places) and “Prodigal Summer” (another Kingsolver with about 450 pages). Trevor Noah’s “Born a Crime” isn’t a doorstop (300 pages) but it’s an EXCELLENT audiobook that ticks some of your boxes. I didn’t believe all the hype but gave it a try. A favorite now. And this might seem weird but you may enjoy the Bruce Springsteen memoir called (of course!) “Born to Run” – Read by Bruce, he begins at his childhood and writes lovingly and honestly about his family stories – parents and grandparents. It’s a beautifully written book (18+ hours long) and I think would appeal to many, even those who aren’t super-fans.

    • Patricia says:

      Another thought…the Neopolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante – four novels that span the lifetimes of two childhood friends. I listened to all 4 audiobooks.

  32. Mary Jo Durivage says:

    Oh- great books discussed and recommended. I LOVE Wally Lamb and the book you suggested is one of my favorites. I heard George Guidell read one of the passages when Dominic is with the therapist. I was in heaven.
    Pat Conroy is also one of my favorites authors and I loved Beach Music. Barbara Kingsolver and Lisa See also right up there. I enjoyed Pachinko very much.

  33. Nancy says:

    Chiming in to agree about the audio version of Before We Were Yours. I just finished it a couple of days ago and thoroughly enjoyed it. And since you mentioned wanting to read A Prayer for Owen Meany, I’ll advocate for the audio version of that book as well. The voice is such an important feature in that story and the narrator is wonderful. A long book, totally worth the listen!

  34. Debbie says:

    Kristin Lavransdatter as another long, family saga type of novel you might enjoy. Speaking of long novels, I’m about 200 pages into Middlemarch and I am enjoying it.

  35. Sydney says:

    So glad to finally hear someone else pick Beach Music as their favorite! It has been mine for over 25 years, but I too am too scared to go back and re-read it, for fear I won’t love it as much. If you haven’t read any of his non-fiction, My Reading Life and A Low Country Heart are both wonderful and his voice shines through. I had the pleasure of seeing him speak about 10 years ago and it just made me love his writing that much more. I second the recommendation for The Great Believers (my favorite book of 2018). Also Molokai by Alan Brennert and Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner are two of my favorites. You’ve inspired me to try Middlesex and A Fine Balance (which has been on my nightstand for 2 years)!

  36. Cheryle Fisher says:

    I am currently reading The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblenski. It is a LONG book, 556 pages. It is a fantastic story of a young boy who is unable to speak but can hear. He signs his responses to people. His family breeds, trains and raises dogs for special needs. Edgar is an important part of the training. He finds his father dying on the floor of the kennel and his trying to deal with this death when his mother starts seeing her husbands brother who has been gone for 20 years. This book was an Oprah selection several years ago and I am finally reading it. Why did I wait so long?

  37. Toni Aliskowitz says:

    Hi Natalie,

    For a sweeping family saga try the Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough. It was a TV drama in the 1980’s I believe. Material can be considered sensitive since it involves a priest.

  38. Just listened and now see the list: you forget to mention the GREATEST LONG NOVEL EVER WRITTEN! I write of Tolstoy’s great Anna Karenina. What better way to keep oneself occupied for a month or so?

  39. Cori says:

    So, I want to recommend that you LISTEN to Poisonwood Bible. Since it sounds like you are comfortable revisiting reads, I think you would find it amazing as an audio book given the variations in narration in the story as well as the African dialects and pronounciations. I will also say give 11/22/63 a read. I think it will hit all those sweeping story buttons you like. And lastly, I too adore Pat Conroy and was heartbroken at our last literary loss. Have you tried Anne River Siddons? You might enjoy her. I would start with her older work such as Peachtree Road, Outer Banks, Heartbreak Hotel or Downtown.

  40. Lexi says:

    She said she hadn’t read Outlander yet. I highly recommend listening to it. The narrator is superb and uses both Claire’s English accent and Jamie’s Scottish brogue. The book was so much better with the accents than if I would have read it in my own voice.

  41. Linda Bischoff says:

    I second And the Ladies of the Club. I read it 40 years ago when I was reading books by Ohio authors. At over 1100 pages, it is a sweeping novel about a group of women who start a literary club in a small fictional town in Ohio. The author, Helen Hoover Santmyer, only wrote this one book. It was exactly the book I needed at the time.

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