For those swamped, stressed-out, and sleep-deprived folks who feel like they don’t have enough time to read these days, here are my five favorite books under 200 pages.
The Living EndBy Stanley Elkin
Elkin’s wickedly funny triptych, a loose retelling of Dante’s Divine Comedy, begins with the story of Ellerbee, a good man condemned to hell for keeping his liquor store open on the Sabbath, then follows his murdered clerk, Ladelhaus, and his ascent into purgatory, and concludes with a satiric tour de force on Judgment Day, with God himself doing a stand-up routine for the sinners and the saved (“Because I never found My audience,” bemoans the Creator). A meditation on suffering and powerlessness, this slim volume contains more hilarity in its 148 pages than a season of The Office and will seem like a revelation to those who’ve never before encountered Elkin’s linguistic genius.
First LoveBy Ivan Turgenev
Turgenev’s tiny masterpiece—part heartbreaking love story, part bildungsroman—recounts 16-year-old Vladimir Petrovich’s summer infatuation with his neighbor, the beautiful princess Zinaida. First love is here presented as a force at once violent, cleansing, and irresistibly powerful. The novel begins as a boy-meets-girl comedy: pursued by a colorful cast of suitors, young Vladimir valiantly throws his hat in the ring to win Zinaida’s favor. But when he learns to whom the princess’s heart truly belongs, this 107-page novel suddenly becomes a tragic tale of adult love and its inescapable complications.
On Being BlueBy William Gass
Subtitled “A Philosophical Inquiry,” Gass’s 91-page essay begins as an investigation into color’s erotic, scientific, and descriptive manifestations. Its true purpose, however, is to identify how great literary artists “mak[e] sentences sexual”—which is not to confuse Gass’s analysis with a blue book (though his chapter on blue language alone is worth the purchase price). Rather, Gass is describing “the country of the blue,” that recognizable yet mysterious netherworld experienced by the writer and reader alike while in the act, and his illustrative passages from such masters as Flaubert, Hawkes, Colette, Beckett, Stevens, and Woolf, will, well, titillate. “It’s not the word made flesh we want ... in poetry and fiction," Gass writes, "but the flesh made word.” That’s hot.
A Sports and a PastimeBy James Salter
On its surface, Salter’s 191-page classic recounts the erotic odyssey of Yale dropout Phillip Dean and French shopgirl Marie Costallat. A closer reading reveals the unnamed narrator’s struggle to live life rather than be condemned to the role of observer. Sensual and atmospheric, it’s been passed among writers like contraband since its 1967 publication partially out of reverence for Salter’s matchless style: “The waitress … wears a turtleneck sweater, black shirt, a leather belt cinched tightly around her waist dividing her into two erotic zones. Behind the bar the radio is going softly. Outside, the snow is falling, covering the car like a statue of a hero, filling the tracks that lead to where it is parked.”
The Castle of Crossed DestiniesBy Italo Calvino
Few writers are as formally inventive as this late Italian master, whose self-proclaimed motto for novel writing was “Keep it short.” My personal favorite is The Castle of Crossed Destinies, which in a mere 120 pages tells of a group of men and women flung together, respectively, in a castle and tavern. Mysteriously rendered mute, they must use Tarot cards to communicate. Through these decks—one arcanum ancient, the other modern—they narrate their travels and tragedies, their loves and losses, reinventing classic fables and conjuring new ones, all of which run along the margins and miraculously interconnect by the novel’s end.