9 short books for the easy win

There are few things more satisfying in life than a finished book. Give yourself an easy win with a short novel – here are nine classics to consider, none of which is more than 160 pages

Bookshelves to illustrate a post about short books

This post was originally supposed to be a list of short books that you could read over the course of a few evenings – some titles to whizz through when time is short or you can’t quite face tackling Proust’s “In Search Of Lost Time” (3,031 pages) or even Eleanor Catton’s Man-Booker winning “The Luminaries” (a mere 864). But when I came to write about them – some of which I haven’t read for, eek, a couple of decades – I realised that shorter does not mean easier. Quite the opposite in fact; many of these books are intense, challenging and mentally draining, their short length often reflecting the fact that such a feverish emotional journey cannot be sustained for long. So think of them more as short, sharp hits – brisk, frenzied, but hugely satisfying all the same.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark (1961)
Mixing 1930s social mores with adolescent passion, facism, and some pretty questionable teaching practices, “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” is a morally complex and ambiguous novel. The compelling but egotistical Miss Brodie singles out six gifted girls at Marcia Blaine School to receive her particular attention, and to learn from her own personal experiences. Thus, as they progress though their teenage years they are initiated into the adult world through the prism of Miss Brodie’s beliefs. While some ultimately cast her influence aside, others find themselves unable to do so – a fact that comes back to haunt Miss Brodie in the end. Spark’s crisp, drily comic writing has made “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” a much loved classic – a short but unforgettable read.

Where Angels Fear to Tread by EM Forster (1905)
When a well-to-do young Englishwoman dies in childbirth, her friends and relatives take it upon themselves to “rescue” her baby from his flashy Italian father – with predictably tragic consequences. “Where Angels Fear to Tread” is full of drama, emotion and striking Italian architecture, but has a lightness of touch and comic tone that render its tragic moments all the more unexpected and heart-breaking. With its exploration of Edwardian upper-class behaviour and prejudices it has more than a touch of Downton about it – all in all, EM Forster’s first novel is an absolute treat.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote (1958)
A New York writer recounts his year living next to flighty “good-time girl” (ahem) Holly Golightly, as she shakes off her country roots and embraces New York’s party scene. Intrigued by her unconventional lifestyle, refusal to conform, and willingness to flirt with danger, he resolves to get to know her and the two become close. Yet Holly gives little away, and he only learns of her painful and difficult past when a family member comes to look for her. The character of Holly is as fascinating to the reader as to the narrator – is she naive and easily led, or does she know exactly what she’s doing? What are her motives and what does she really want? How far can we trust other people’s stories about her – including the narrator’s? It’s pretty easy to read, but “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” packs a heck of a lot into its 150-odd pages.

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (1902)
Like the jungle into which its narrator, Marlow, travels, “Heart of Darkness” is dense and disturbing. The book tells the story of Captain Marlow’s journey into the heart of the Belgian Congo to join a cargo boat that he is supposed to lead on an ivory collecting expedition. He soon grows disgusted by the greed of the ivory traders and their exploitation of the natives, however, and, arriving at his station, finds his journey has been deliberately and mysteriously delayed. When he finally sets out, his apprehension turns to fear as he leaves civilisation far behind him and confronts a place of darkness both moral and physical. “Heart of Darkness” is not exactly a barrel of laughs, but it has huge cultural significance for a 100-page book.

By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart (1945)
A work of prose poetry, the plot involves a doomed love triangle, but the book, constructed as a “single, sustained climax”, is really about the narrator’s agonised revelations on the nature of love. Writers from Beryl Bainbridge to Raffaella Barker (who later discovered that the male protagonist was based on her own father, the poet George Barker, with whom Smart had a stormy 18-year affair) have declared the book profound and life-changing, while The Spectator described it as “a cry of ecstasy which, without changing volume or pitch, becomes a cry of agony”. A testament to the power of words to convey intense, ecstatic emotion, without recourse to cliché or melodrama, it’s an extraordinary book that still feels so fresh, more than 70 years after it was written.

Love by Angela Carter (1971)
Another love triangle – this time between a mentally fragile wife, her self-centred husband, and his violent, unpleasant brother – and a painful exploration of love’s destructive capabilities. “Love” is not one of Carter’s best known books and is not an example of the magic realism with which she is usually associated, but it demonstrates her ability to empathise with difficult, damaged characters, delving into the darkest corners of the human condition as she does so. It’s a tough read, and in all honesty you probably won’t enjoy this book, as such. But you won’t forget it, either.

The Sign of Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1890)
The second Sherlock Holmes novel finds the inscrutable detective and his sidekick Watson on excellent form as they try to solve the mystery of a missing Indian army captain, whose governess daughter has been receiving a valuable pearl, sent anonymously, every year since his disappearance a decade ago. “The Sign of Four” has all the familiar elements of a Sherlock Holmes story – an impossible murder, an exotic back story, the Baker Street Irregulars, several bizarre twists, and plenty of cocaine to jolly Holmes along. This one really is a quick, enjoyable read.

Franny and Zooey by JD Salinger (1955)
Franny is a college student who has started to develop a deep distaste for her friends’ blinkered conformity and unquestioning acceptance of others’ opinions. She starts dabbling in spiritualism, eventually succumbing to a sort of breakdown. Her brother Zooey – quietly but determinedly harangued by their mother – attempts to soothe her mind by reminding her of the religious philosophy taught to them by their older siblings, and counsels her to see her friends and teachers – and everyone else – in a kinder light. The only problems she should seek to solve, he suggests, are those within her own self. It’s a strange little book in many ways – ultimately an intellectual debate between the youngest members of a large group of accomplished, erudite, slightly pretentious siblings – but as an exploration of teenage angst, “Franny and Zooey” takes some beating.

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1943)
You might have read this as a child and wondered what the heck it was really about. As it mostly reflects on the weirdness, loneliness and monotony of adult life  – as well as the value of long, deeply nurtured relationships – it’s probably worth reading again from an adult perspective. Clearly an allegorical tale, there are many theories as to what each element symbolises (are the baobab trees the Nazis? Is the little prince Christ?), and it takes on whole new meanings later in life. In particular, I find the little prince’s open-minded innocence, his endless curiosity, his imaginative power, and his mix of clear-sightedness and confusion when faced with flawed adults, particularly poignant when thinking about my own children’s thought processes, and the adult world that they will inevitably have to fit into.