When was the last time you read a great book? If you’re like far too many people, the answer is either: “Well, it has been a while…” or it’s “Why, just last week!” But in the latter case, you’re lying. Especially if you say it was Joyce or Proust.
A voracious reader will consume dozens of books each year, while these days the average reader reads about twelve books throughout the course of the year. But according to the Pew Research Center, in 2014 almost a quarter of Americans didn’t read one single goddamned book (or any non-goddamned books, either). E-readers have led some people to read more than they used to, but we have also seen the ascent of actual hard copy books resume in the last year or two, so that Kindle or Nook isn’t about to usher in a new generation of bibliophiles. Only a renewed interest in great writing can do that. And here’s one way you can get yourself back into reading: read shorter books.
So here’s another question, and it’s a slight variation on the opening line: When was the last time you read a great book in one sitting? Edgar Allan Poe, the arguable father of the modern short story and a huge proponent of the art form, felt that a good story should be readable in one sitting, that sitting lasting anywhere from a half hour to two hours. At an accepted average reading speed of 200 words per minute, that means a good story should be anywhere between 6,000 words and as long as 24,000 words, give or take. While the short novels we’re discussing here today are bit longer than that, you can still knock any of them off in a single long reading session, or at least in one day with a few breaks thrown in. So kick back and enjoy a great novel or five!
TRAIN DREAMS – by Denis Johnson
This unique novella seemed to come out of nowhere in 2011, landing on lists including NPR’s “1o Best Novels of 2011,” the New York Times “Notable Book” section, and even garnering a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize. Oh, and the author won the National Book award. It is a tale of the American West, a story about life at the turn of the last century, and a look into the fraught life of one lonely man struggling to exist against a backdrop of an unfeeling world. So it’s quite uplifting, really! Or… well, page turning, anyway.
NOTES FROM UNDERGROUND – by Fyodor Dostoevsky
If you don’t have the time to read The Brothers Karamazov right now, you can be forgiven. After all, there are a staggering 364,153 words in most translations of that excellent but massive tome. Notes From Underground, on the other hand, is just under 44,150 words in length, and should be easy to read on a cross country flight or a train trip from DC to NY (or while you sit there in your living room). This trim book, released in 1864, is considered one of the earliest existential works, and in its pages you can see the mind of its author developing both his outlook on the world and his writing style that would be soon be on brilliant display in Crime and Punishment, Karamazov, and other literary masterpieces.
FAHRENHEIT 451 – by Ray Bradbury
If you love science fiction, you probably already know and adore Ray Bradbury, one of the pillars of the genre. If you love great writing, genre notwithstanding, you owe it to yourself to read this classic sci-fi masterpiece, which should only take you three hours at most. It is just a few paragraphs over 46,000 words, yet within that limited word count Bradbury managed to create a world every bit as real and as ominous as those developed by Orwell, Huxley, or any of the other masters of speculative fiction. And just as a little hint/teaser, 451 refers to the “temperature at which books burn.”
SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE – by Kurt Vonnegut
If you missed the chance to consume all things Vonnegut in high school, don’t worry, you’re still allowed to catch up now. And you should. Vonnegut’s writing is not challenging for any decent reader, but it is excellent nonetheless, chiefly for the sense of ironic humor and wonder he infuses into his pages. Slaughterhouse Five, AKA The Children’s Crusade, was published in 1969 and is set largely during World War II. Much of the action also takes place on an alien planet known as “Tralfamadore.” You… just have to go with it. And when you go in knowing that one of the pivotal scenes, the firebombing of the German city of Dresden, was experienced by the author firsthand, that changes the tone a bit. But it’s still good for laughs and as food for thought.
THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA – by Ernest Hemingway
The Old Man and the Sea is but 26,601 words long. You can read it without so much as standing up to stretch, yet within its 127 pages (given the edition you choose) you can endure the pains and frustrations of its aged protagonist — pains both tangible and existential — with such a ferocious intimacy that you might as well be there in the boat with Santiago. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1953 and it will still knock your socks off in 2o16, or in 2053, for that matter. In fact, this book is credited with helping to influence the Nobel Committee’s decision to award Hemingway the Nobel Prize for Literature the following year.