What to read when pressed for time.
October 23, 2014 9:39 PM   Subscribe

17 Brilliant Short Novels You Can Read in a Sitting by Lincoln Michel at Electric Literature:
This week author Ian McEwan expressed his love of short novels, saying “very few [long] novels earn their length.” Certainly it seems like a novel has to be a minimum of 500 pages to win a major literary award these days, and many genre novels have ballooned to absurd sizes.

I love a good tome, but like McEwan many of my favorite novels are sharpened little gems. It’s immensely satisfying to finish a book in a single day, so in the spirit of celebrating quick reads here are some of my favorite short novels. I’ve tried to avoid the most obvious titles that are regularly assigned in school (The Stranger, Heart of Darkness, Mrs Dalloway, Of Mice and Men, Frankenstein, The Crying of Lot 49, etc.). Hopefully you’ll find some titles here you haven’t read before.

Lazy Readers' Book Club"This is where you go when you want to read quality books that don't take years to finish. My mission is to increase interest in reading by providing cool, short book recommendations for all ages. From interest comes devotion."

50 Incredible Novels Under 200 Pages — Emily Temple at Flavorwire.

46 Brilliant Short Novels You Can Read In A Day"Great reads under 200 pages. Mostly."; Daniel Dalton for BuzzFeed.

20 Classic Novels You Can Read in One Sitting — Mark Nichol, Daily Writing Tips; and from Huffington Post, These Amazing Classic Books Are So Short You Have No Excuse Not To Read Them.

Bonus link for fun: Reading Recommendations · Classic Novels from The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome (50 comments total) 350 users marked this as a favorite
We Have Always Lived In The Castle is wonderful; I reread it recently after The Whelk mentioned it in a tweet, but I did audio this time-- if any of you prefer audiobooks over bookbooks, the Blackstone Audio production is great.
posted by NoraReed at 10:06 PM on October 23, 2014 [3 favorites]

Can I recommend "The Kingdom of this World" by Alejo Carpentier? Holy crap that's a short novel that packs a wallop. I'd also recommend "Beauty Salon" by Mario Bellatín, which is quite haunting.
posted by Omon Ra at 10:16 PM on October 23, 2014 [3 favorites]

I'm skeptical about the idea that one can read Frankenstein in one sitting, as proffered in several of these articles, unless it's a hideously mutilated version. Both language and length works against this, unless one has the freedom to spent a whole day reading and the discipline to keep doing so.

Virginia Woolf's Orlando meanwhile is a hair over twohundred pages and could concievably be read in a few hours or, as I'm doing currently, in fifteen minute snatches on the daily commute.
posted by MartinWisse at 10:20 PM on October 23, 2014 [6 favorites]

Eponysterical, joseph conrad?

I agree with Martin: Frankenstein is dense. If you're ripping through it you're missing a lot.

Of Mice and Men is rejected as too obvious, but really all of Steinbeck's short works are immensely readable: Tortilla Flat, Cannery Row. (The Pearl, too; but oh God I had such a visceral dislike of it on last reading.)
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 10:31 PM on October 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

Also, that Buzzfeed article has a strange idea of what a novel is, if A Room of One's Own qualifies.

Don't read Amsterdam.
posted by MartinWisse at 10:40 PM on October 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

Ooohh, excellent post!

Fantasy novels seems to be particularly susceptible to ballooning up. I suggest reading Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar books, which technically are collections of short stories, and Mervyn Peake's Ghormenghast series, which are, truth to be said over 300 pages, but in modern fantasy terms that's really short.
posted by Harald74 at 10:43 PM on October 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'd put Cees Nooteboom's "The Following Story" on any list like this.
posted by mcdeeder at 11:24 PM on October 23, 2014

BTW, seconding We had a deal, Kyle's recommendation of Steinbeck's short works.
posted by Harald74 at 11:37 PM on October 23, 2014

Before I'd clicked on the link to read over Lincoln Michel's list, "The Lathe of Heaven" had come to mind. Boy, I love that book.
posted by Auden at 11:37 PM on October 23, 2014 [4 favorites]

Penelope Fitzgerald was a master of the compact novel. Most of her books range from 160 to 250 pages, each of them so perfectly written that I gave up 21st century lit-fic for a spell. The economy of many mid-century women writers like Barbara Pym, Muriel Spark and Elizabeth Taylor also allowed me to go through their entire oeuvres in a relatively short amount of time, which was incredibly considerate of them.
posted by peripathetic at 12:26 AM on October 24, 2014 [8 favorites]

Ethan Frome, Ethan Frome, Ethan Frome. Seconding one of links that mentioned Marquez's Chronicle of a Death Foretold. If I had to make my own list, I'd add The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson and Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto. I wanted to like A Single Man (for reasons other than Colin Firth), but the weird touches of sexism and racism kind of threw me.
posted by book 'em dano at 12:42 AM on October 24, 2014

Time's Arrow by Martin Amis (177p) is among my favorite short novels.
posted by OHenryPacey at 12:43 AM on October 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Short, punchy, insight into one of the big movements of the 20th century, the forced work camp.

At one point I thought "you know, this is great, but I'm halfway through this small volume and he's only got to lunchtime. At this rate.... OH!"
posted by alasdair at 12:47 AM on October 24, 2014 [5 favorites]

I would add Geoffrey Household's Rogue Male.
posted by Ice Cream Socialist at 1:12 AM on October 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

My favourite short book I've read recently is Pereira Maintains. It packs an amazing amount into 200 or so pages.
posted by Ned G at 1:39 AM on October 24, 2014

Surprised not to see my favourite "short read" book on the list:

Put 'Em Down, Take 'Em Out!: Knife Fighting Techniques From Folsom Prison
posted by greenhornet at 2:01 AM on October 24, 2014 [4 favorites]

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, 2013, by Mohsin Ahmed.

222 brisk pages, and he even promises not to waste your time like Salman Rushdie right at the get go. Ok, he doesn't name Salman Rushdie but I'm pretty sure that's who he meant.
posted by BinGregory at 3:02 AM on October 24, 2014 [3 favorites]

Ooh I notice Ahmed's "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" is on Buzzfeed's 46. "HTGFR" is better!
posted by BinGregory at 3:27 AM on October 24, 2014

A Month in the Country, by JL Carr
posted by Chrischris at 3:36 AM on October 24, 2014

No "The Awakening"? Kate Chopin really shines in her short stories - I haven't read all of the suggestions from the fpp links yet, but so far I have yet to see another author convey so much with so few words - but her novella is still a classic for good reason.
posted by eviemath at 3:37 AM on October 24, 2014 [4 favorites]

Put 'Em Down, Take 'Em Out!: Knife Fighting Techniques From Folsom Prison

If we're gonna start allowing nonfiction, then I'm going to throw in Systemantics and How to Lie With Statistics.
posted by Sticherbeast at 4:18 AM on October 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

From the penultimate link: Classic Short Stories You Can Read in Less Than 10 Minutes.

And it has links to the actual stories.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 4:45 AM on October 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

eviemath, "The Awakening" is in the huffpost link, along with a sort of spoiler I guess.
posted by xigxag at 5:42 AM on October 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

If we're gonna start allowing nonfiction, then I'm going to throw in Systemantics and How to Lie With Statistics.

"19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei."
posted by mcdeeder at 5:50 AM on October 24, 2014

It's weird Mark Nichol includes Wuthering Heights. It runs 108,000 words (about 400 pages).
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 5:56 AM on October 24, 2014

Glad to see "Giovanni's Room" on that first list. That novel is *amazing*, but because it's atypical for Baldwin, it often gets overlooked.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 6:05 AM on October 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

This list is kind of fun, showing the number of words in a bunch of famous novels.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 6:10 AM on October 24, 2014

My gradual realization that the books that have stayed with me are some of the slimmest, because a red hot series of ideas ensconced in a compact enclosure of language is a hell of a lot better than the padded potboilers beloved of the bargain-priced beach book set, is one real source of regret for me as a writer. I spent the better part of a decade trying to figure out how to fill out my manuscript from 2004, Scaggsville, to meet the page counts of the modern reader's expectations, with the results of vandalizing everything in it that was good and sharp and to-the-point, and further spent the better part of the time since deciding, way back in the mid-eighties, that storytelling was going to be my thing feeling like I just didn't have the patience or discipline to do what I wanted to do because our collective literary obesity epidemic meant I could never quite achieve the level of narcissistic inflation that a bestseller requires.

My well-worn paperback edition of The Lathe Of Heaven is one hundred and seventy-five pages long and I have yet to reread it without discovering something new and insightful. My copy of Winesburg, Ohio is a little longer, at two-hundred forty-seven pages, and contains multitudes.

I was raised on the rambling chaotic collaborative mess of the Bible, but I live now by a book with just 81 brief chapters, which fits neatly in a back pocket.

We too often confuse epic scope and epic length, when the two have very little dependence on one another.
posted by sonascope at 6:57 AM on October 24, 2014 [4 favorites]

There is no way I could read Heart of Darkness in one day.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:01 AM on October 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

I know it's standard and everyone knows it, but Lord of the Flies is a few pages in excess of 200 and should be mandatory reading. /Golding fan boy

Also, Yoko Ogawa's The Diving Pool includes three wonderful, weird, and disturbing short novellas that I fully recommend.
posted by echocollate at 7:26 AM on October 24, 2014

Joseph Conrad always with the awesome posts, thanks!

I keep a stack of Nero Wolfe novels handy so as to always have something I can finish in a night or two of bedtime reading...short and sharp writing and the actual plots are highly forgettable so I can always recycle with ease!
posted by batfish at 7:33 AM on October 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Great post! A couple of Russian recommendations:

Mikhail Lermontov, A Hero of Our Time; I called it irresistible and endlessly rereadable here, and Nabokov (who translated it) said it was "of lasting appeal to readers of all countries and centuries."

Venedikt Yerofeyev/Yerofeev/Erofeev (sorry, Russian names can be a mess to transliterate), Moscow-Petushki (aka Moscow to the End of the Line, Moscow Stations, and Moscow Circles): gut-wrenchingly sad and gut-bustingly hilarious, and right up there with Under the Volcano as a classic novel of alcoholism.
posted by languagehat at 7:52 AM on October 24, 2014 [4 favorites]

Snow Country wrecked me in 175 pages.
posted by HumanComplex at 7:52 AM on October 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have my doubts about "you can read this in one sitting" as applied to some of the titles on the Nichol list. Wuthering Heights in one sitting? Maybe if you have absolutely zero other distractions.
posted by blucevalo at 8:04 AM on October 24, 2014

About two years ago I discovered that The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which I had never read before, is a sort of perfect single-sitting novella (and every sentence of it is perfect and gorgeous.) Maybe a bit obvious for this list, but if by chance you haven't actually read it before, it's absolutely worth your two hours or so.
posted by Navelgazer at 8:19 AM on October 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

Well, this prompted a bit of an orgy for me on Paperback Swap just now...

Joseph Conrad always with the awesome posts, thanks!

posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:46 AM on October 24, 2014

I know this is eponysterical but I read Snow Country with two friends and our collective reaction was "Huh??" Maybe I'll have to give it another go.

That same year, I challenged myself to read 50 books, and on a train ride on December 30 I chose We Have Always Lived in the Castle for number 50, purely because it was so short. It was an excellent choice. I also loved The Lathe of Heaven.

Franny and Zooey!

It's funny how many of these very short books I never got through, though, given their length and that this is not usually a problem for me. Never got through Pnin (why?? I'll have to revisit it). Ditto for Cheri. I LOATHED Buddha in the Attic and thought about throwing it down in disgust about once every page and a half, but I finished it because it was for a book club (if it had been any longer I would not have) and was treated to an insightful discussion.

And now my pick, which probably doesn't have enough literary clout to be included on any of these lists, although it's a classic in YA: Weetzie Bat and its sequels Witch Baby, Cherokee Bat and the Goat Guys, Missing Angel Juan, and Baby Be-Bop. You could easily read all five in a day, and they absolutely gave shape to my teenage years and beyond.
posted by sunset in snow country at 8:48 AM on October 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

My heart sang to see Amy Hempel on the list, she is one of my all time favorites. Same with We Have Always Lived In the Castle.

This Orange Eats Creeps has been on my To Read list for a while, time to get it, I think.
posted by bibliogrrl at 9:31 AM on October 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Needs more The Day of the Locust.
posted by vapidave at 9:49 AM on October 24, 2014 [3 favorites]

The main link's not loading for me, but The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate is a beautifully intricate knot with everything looping back inside.
posted by echo target at 10:13 AM on October 24, 2014

That Buzzfeed list has Jonathan Livingston Seagull on it, and is therefore wrong.
posted by Trinity-Gehenna at 10:14 AM on October 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

That Buzzfeed list has Jonathan Livingston Seagull on it, and is therefore wrong.

They might have mitigated their error by including Jonathan Segal Chicken.

Yes, I read both.
posted by vapidave at 11:10 AM on October 24, 2014

Cesar Aira's Ghosts is on at least one of the lists, but really any of his books fit the description of excellent short novel, including The Hare, An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, and The Literary Conference, all wonderful, kind of surreal, energetic reads.
posted by aught at 11:19 AM on October 24, 2014

Also, while I love Renata Adler's Speedboat, which is on a couple of these lists, it's about 300 pages of pretty intense and elliptical writing and I don't think it really qualifies as a "quick read". A must read, maybe, but maybe a 2-3 day read (if read as carefully as it deserves) instead of a 1 day read.
posted by aught at 11:25 AM on October 24, 2014

We really enjoyed Anthem, by Ayn Rand.
posted by Renoroc at 12:53 PM on October 24, 2014

SF novels used to be a lot shorter, so there are a lot of shorter classics. The Merchant's War or the novel version of Behold the Man.
posted by Chrysostom at 4:42 PM on October 24, 2014

Also, Flann O’Brien's The Third Policeman *is* good, but I preferred At Swim-Two-Birds.

Just get the nice Everyman's Library Complete Novels, and you get both, plus three others!
posted by Chrysostom at 4:45 PM on October 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

No love for Kurt Vonnegut? Sirens of Titan, Mother Night, Cat's Cradle? All brilliant, all over far too soon.
posted by Elizabeth the Thirteenth at 1:41 AM on October 25, 2014 [3 favorites]

Going to second languagehat on the Lermontov — it is an alp of a book. Coruscates with brilliance and audacity.
posted by Wolof at 2:48 AM on October 25, 2014

Candide by Voltaire is obviously the best of all possible single-sitting books.
posted by turbid dahlia at 4:41 PM on October 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

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