I love long books, time permitting. War and Peace, The Count of Monte Cristo, and Infinite Jest rank high on my personal favorites list. When a book is masterfully written and populated by compelling characters, the more pages the better. But there is also something to be said for a work short enough to be read cover to cover in a single setting, both in terms of the profound experience of digesting an entire story at once and the limited amount of free time you may have in which to read.
We’re speaking of genuine novels (call them novellas if you will), not of short stories. Edgar Allen Poe rightly said of the short story that “there should be no word written of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not toward the one preestablished design … The idea of the tale has been presented unblemished, because undisturbed; and this is an end unattainable by the novel.” However, I posit that the longer form of the novel — even the short one — gives the author license to do more than just tell a story, allowing him to infuse wit, wisdom, and insight.
If you love a good book and you’re looking for one (or 10) that you can read in one go, whether while on a flight or a train or bunked down for a fine night at home, consider any of these brief but masterful novels.
The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy
Written after an almost decade-long hiatus during which Tolstoy did not pen a word of fiction (or any that was published, anyway), The Death of Ivan Ilyich offers a brief but poignant snapshot of the final days of a man’s life. And what does a man (or woman) do when confronting death? He thinks through the entirety of life. In the book, which is well under 100 pages long, we come to sympathize with the generally unlikable dying protagonist, Ivan Ilyich, for as he comes to see himself as he really was, we begin to see ourselves.
Train Dreams by Denis Johnson
Train Dreams is a strange book. Its prose is crisp and clear and easy to understand, and the protagonist, Robert Grainer, is a rather simple man who lacks any profound sense of curiosity or wonder. Yet the story is nonetheless gripping and mysterious and the journey of the Grainer that of the proverbial hero nonetheless. Set in the American West near the turn of the last century, the landscapes of the novel are at times bleak, at times lurid, and the book feels at times like a raw and real portrait of a time gone by, like dark, unsettling fantasy.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
You know all about this book, right? Dr. J makes a magic potion which turns him into Mr. H. As Hyde, he’s wild, untethered, violent, and abjectly narcissistic, and he causes all sorts of trouble. That’s the whole book, right? Well, not so much. Properly titled The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, this masterful, compact work of psychological fiction is more pertinent as a study of humanity than it is as a story alone, though that story remains gripping and unnerving even more than 130 years after it was written.
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
The Old Man and the Sea is one of those books that suffers by its own fame. Everyone more or less knows the story of this book, so few bother to actually read it. The first time I picked up the book when I was 19 or 20, I planned to read 15 or 20 pages like I did most nights and then move on with things. Later that evening, I read the final words. When you finish this stark, gorgeous book, you will understand why its 1952 publication helped secure Hemingway’s 1954 Nobel Prize for Literature.
The Stranger by Albert Camus
If you want to get into the study of mid-20th-century Existentialism, don’t start with Sartre, start with Camus. And start with The Stranger. This book is easy to read, thanks to the Nobel laureate’s uncluttered writing style, and easy to understand, the plot being linear and uncomplicated. However, woven into that clear writing and plot is a deep exploration of the human mind and something approximating the soul — an exploration revealing that what’s going on in each of us means nothing unless we decide it means something. Which is seriously heavy stuff, once you process it.
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
Steinbeck’s short, blunt novel Of Mice and Men is yet another book you’re probably not reading because you think you already know it. In fact, you probably already read it in high school. But do you know why it has been assigned to so many millions of high school students in the decades since its publication? Because it’s a great book, that’s why. The characters are as real as people you really know, thus their struggles and agonies are deeply felt, as are the brief glimmers of hope.
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Even readers who don’t consider themselves fans of science fiction will be swept away by Ray Bradbury’s slim classic novel Fahrenheit 451. Though decades old now, it remains an incisive commentary on frivolity and a stark warning against allowing an overly powerful government to dictate not only law, but thought. Read books like this because thinking, “Yeah, but it can’t happen here,” only works until it does. (I mean, it can’t happen here, but … just read it.)
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
OK, at about 180 pages (in the hardcover edition), you will probably have to get up to relieve yourself and/or get a snack while reading The Ocean at the End of the Lane, so maybe one sitting is a bit of a stretch, but most readers will easily polish this book off in one day. The book is something of a fairy take for adults, though told through a child’s eyes. It would be easy to spoil this book’s twists by speaking much on the plot or characters, so suffice it to say the writing is lyrical and evocative, creating vivid images in the reader’s mind.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
F. Scott Fitzgerald didn’t have that many great books in him. He was a great writer, to be sure, and there are passages from his books like Tender is the Night and The Love of the Last Tycoon that are sublime, but most of his books lack cohesion. Not this one. This one is as great as your English teacher said it was. The Great Gatsby remains a compelling success because it features real, relatable (and pitiable) characters in situations the reader can imagine while also painting a portrait of its time. Classic books were contemporary once, so don’t treat them like relics, but like time capsules — or better yet, time machines.
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
If you have never read Vonnegut, start with this book. If you read it in one sitting, immediately move on to Cat’s Cradle, Mother Night, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, and keep on cruising through this hilarious, odd, and eminently readable writer’s oeuvre. If you don’t like Slaughterhouse Five, then Vonnegut just isn’t for you, and that’s OK. His style is at times playful, often macabre, sometimes puerile, and always well-paced. Like many Vonnegut books, Slaughterhouse-Five tells its story in fragments, hopping from place to place and time to time, and veering in and out of reality. Like only a handful of his books, this one was largely inspired by the horrors he saw first hand as a soldier in WWII. At a bit over 200 pages, it’s the longest on our list, but having read it three or four times already, and once on a single flight, it deserves its spot.