23 Wonderful Books Under 200 Pages
Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos by editors
As nice as it is to delve into a work of fiction a few centimeters thick, having the time – and the concentration – to do so is increasingly a luxury. To keep you going between Netflix excesses and DVR purges, we’ve put together a list of excellent books that will take you less than a day to read, each of them 200 pages or less.
It’s not “The Greatest Novels of All Time” because lists like that are readily available, and you probably read a lot of these books in grade school anyway. Rather, they are some of the most entertaining and revealing stories, novels, essays, and short treatises of the recent past. Works vary in degrees of digestibility – some can satisfy your cravings in an hour while others can take an entire day to absorb – but each will leave you glad you took the time for it.
Pure return pleasure. Eve Babitz, a contemporary of Joan Didion and Renata Adler, is the perfect guide to 60s and 70s Los Angeles, a time and place easy to romanticize — and these ten irresistible essays won’t let us down. Like many of Hollywood’s “it” girls, they’re flat, glamorous, and both sad and sunny.
A devastating novel about a black British woman who works in finance and who may have turned the other cheek too often, Assembly depicts a kind of death caused by a million micro-aggressions.
auditory trumpet is a weird and wonderful cult classic that revels in its singular weirdness. Originally published in 1974 and re-released by NYRB in 2021, it’s the story of an eccentric elderly heroine who is placed in a nursing home unlike any you’ve ever encountered, a place brimming with intrigue and of surreal adventures that adhere to a twisted logic of its own.
The literary world has rightly been devoured by Ferrante fever for more than a decade. If you want to experience how visceral and hurtful the Italian writer’s prose can be, start with The days of abandonment. The short novel about the anger of a woman abandoned by her husband is a scathing introduction to Ferrante’s work and an ideal litmus test to determine whether you should switch to his epic Neapolitan novels.
Cultural critic Vivian Gornick writes about New York like no one else and deserves a spot on the list with all the favourites: EB White, Patti Smith, Teju Cole. His second memoir is like taking a brief but quick walk through the streets of the city and talking with its weird and wonderful inhabitants.
The 9/11 novel that stood out to me the most, and it remains as relevant today as ever. The reluctant fundamentalist follows a Muslim man who is an avid hunter of the American Dream but who, while facing a bombardment of harassment after the attack, spirals into hatred of the Western way of life.
It’s the late 1990s on Long Island, and a teenage girl named Ali willingly takes on the drudgery of working the checkout counter at a grocery store in order to get closer to her obsession. The main character is a colleague who seems more worldly, more experienced, more charismatic than anyone else in Ali’s world. Justine is a beautiful coming-of-age story that comes complete with illustrations that may remind you of the art of your favorite zines.
Translated from Spanish by Adrian Nathan West, When we stop understanding the world details the personal lives of a handful of 20th-century scientists and mathematicians whose discoveries brought unprecedented destruction. It’s a compact but explosive novel that blurs the fine line between fact and fiction, with each page straying further from what’s been written in the history books. When we stop understanding the world does nothing less than broaden the scope of what fiction can do.
Something feels a little off about Deborah Levy’s masterful latest novel – the details don’t line up, the timeline doesn’t quite make sense – and that’s totally the point. As we follow self-involved historian Saul Adler from an art exhibition in New York to a photo shoot on Abbey Road to a passage behind the Berlin Wall in the 1980s, we come to see the various flaws in the way Saul sees the world. He is a great addition to the canon of great unreliable storytellers in literature.
Mexican essayist and novelist Valeria Luiselli makes me want to be a better reader and thinker. His first novel is a simple but wonderfully bizarre story of a peddler who auctions off a collection of teeth. Come for the absurd comedy, stay for the references to great writers and philosophers, and see how much of a joke you really are.
If you’re new to the magic of a perfect short story from Lorrie Moore, this slim collection is a great place to start. You’ll get a sense of his wordplay, intelligence, and wry humor, even in times of great desperation. Bonus: “You’re Ugly, Too” is one of the best short stories of all time, and it’s contained within these pages.
No one combines the academic and the personal better than Maggie Nelson. His ode to the color blue is part memoir, part philosophical study, part comedy, part seriously emo mixtape. This is the book that slips easily into the pocket of your favorite jeans, and begs to be revisited and worn out just as much.
funny-sad is a very unoriginal but concise adjective to describe my favorite genre of writing, and Jenny Offill’s lovely fragmented novel delivers it. She invokes the wisdom of philosophers, poets and scientists in her ironic portrayal of a wedding, but her own words are just as profound.
A must read if you like vintage clothes, the smell of old library books and unrequited love. Alexis M. Smith’s short story about finding beauty in damaged things is soft but never twee, sensitive but strong.
This one is for all the women who have ever written insightful things on the internet only to have a man in the comments section explain it back. Rebecca Solnit has written many brilliant books – all highly recommended – but this little beacon of light serves as a short, moving treatise on a blight that has plagued us for centuries: mansplaining.
“The world shouldn’t be about wanting and wanting like it used to when I was younger and dumber, drawing in my bed, drawing some motherfucker’s name on my hand and hearts. But we are all there.
Yes, Spectacle has been described as “experimental”, but know that I use this word to describe a style of writing that feels exciting, new and different, not pretentious or unnecessarily complicated. The stories linked in Spectacle feel like they’re innovating even as they focus on universal emotions.
For a volatile and messy romance, We the animals is also remarkably controlled – there’s not a foreign word to be found. It unfolds in spurts of memories, the memories of the youngest son of a poor Métis family, where rare moments of exuberance and tenderness are juxtaposed with the chaos of everyday life.
An anonymous woman separates from her husband, takes their young daughter, and moves into an immaculate apartment. While her new home may seem as light and airy as the glittering cover of the English translation of the novel, published by FSG in 2019, it’s far from a fresh start. Being a single mother in Tokyo in the 1970s with little support from her community or the government is a darker undertaking than the title suggests.
Karolina Waclawiak is a fearless writer, and the self-destructive heroine of her first novel is driven by loneliness and desire. A Polish immigrant struggling to make her way to Los Angeles, Anka poses as a naughty Russian to get past the bouncers at the hot club around the corner from her seedy apartment.
Oh, to have a free afternoon and not have read yet Mouth to mouth! These days, it feels like any thriller with some kind of suspenseful edge is favorably compared to a Patricia Highsmith classic, but Antoine Wilson’s elegant train wreck of a novel is one that really deserve it. You can zoom in on it, but it would be wise to go back and read it a second time to savor the fluidity of its construction.
“I didn’t know what hate was, not the hate that comes after love. It is huge and desperate and it yearns to be denied. And every day, it’s proven, it gets a little more monstrous. If love was passion, hate will be obsession.”
Never has a piece of historical fiction set in a time that didn’t really appeal to me (it’s the story of a soldier in the Napoleonic wars) made me feel so much. Winterson writes heroically about love, about politics, and about the things that occupy our minds.
A satisfying novel you can read in an hour or two, Another Brooklyn follows the friendship of four girls in the 1970s. Jacqueline Woodson is a YA superstar, and although this novel is aimed at adults, its subject matter reminds us of the great empathy with which she portrays teenagers. Woodson gives us a window into a way of life full of struggles, yes, but also of beauty and wonder.
Like another ornithologist and editor of The Wallcreeper, Jonathan Franzen, Nell Zink is an author you can love or hate, but it’s hard to deny the power of her writing. Her debut novel is the perfect introduction to her quirky point of view, the little gems of humor found on nearly every page offsetting some (but not all) of the surrounding darkness.