It’s time for another list game, this one courtesy of Shanah, a.k.a. the Bionic Book Worm: top 5 books under 300 pages. In theory, this should be a very easy list for me to compile. I read a lot of poetry collections and dramatic works, both formats where even 100 pages would be considered on the long side. But I feel that to include those sorts of books would be violating the spirit of the theme: books whose short lengths are noteworthy. As such, I’m going to restrict myself to works of nondramatic prose, i.e., works of fiction and nonfiction.
That still leaves us with a wide variety of books to examine, and I hope the list is eclectic enough that at least one book here will sound appealing. We’ll be looking at experimental essays and straightforward criticism, postmodern literature and classic fantasy. Should be a fun diversion. So, without further delay: the list.
5) The Crying of Lot 49, by Thomas Pynchon (152 pages)
Let’s begin with a book I would described less as “short” than as “truncated.” The Crying of Lot 49 follows Oedipa Maas, who has been tasked with managing the estate of her ex-boyfriend. In the process of untangling his complicated assortment of assets, she stumbles upon evidence of an age-old conflict between two rival mail delivery services: Thurn und Taxis, the established corporate giant, and Trystero, the underground competitor. At least, she thinks she’s found evidence of such a conflict. For while she keeps running into signs of Trystero’s existence, Oedipa is never certain that she’s not hallucinating the whole conspiracy.
This book has all the makings of an engaging thriller, albeit one with some idiosyncratic cultural references—a working knowledge of Jacobean drama is helpful for understanding the plot, for example. But what makes The Crying of Lot 49 interesting (or, if you’re less charitable, infuriating) is that Oedipa never even comes close to uncovering the truth. Instead, it abruptly ends before the title “crying,” an auction of rare postage stamps that Oedipa believes might lead her closer to confirming Trystero’s existence. Imagine a mystery show that ended right as the detectives made their first breakthrough, and you have a good idea of how The Crying of Lot 49 operates. It’s not to everyone’s taste, of course, but if you like characters with rising, unrelieved paranoia, then this is the story for you. (Alternatively, if you like A Series of Unfortunate Events, which is clearly inspired by this book.)
4) Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, by Carl Wilson (176 pages)
This is music critic Carl Wilson’s contribution to 33 1/3, a series in which writers analyze one album in great depth. This book is ostensibly about Let’s Talk About Love, the 1997 Céline Dion album featuring “My Heart Will Go On,” but Wilson has much broader ambitions here. He’s interested in how an artist like Dion can be so critically loathed yet so popular and beloved, and he will not be satisfied with so simple an answer as, “People have bad taste.” Wilson spends a year immersed in all things Céline, and in doing so questions the prejudices of the critical establishment.
Books in the 33 1/3 series are pocket-sized by design, and in his book Wilson doesn’t waste a single sentence. He places Dion’s work in the context of Quebecois music history, considers critics’ traditional distaste for schmaltz and sentimentality, interviews fans of Dion from all over the world—it’s a veritable greatest hits album of sociological analysis. I enjoyed Let’s Talk About Love in much the same way that I enjoyed Andy Greenwald’s exploration of emo subculture, Nothing Feels Good, in that it’s a sympathetic but still critical account of a genre of music I have little personal taste for. It’s less important that readers and critics come away thinking someone like Dion is a great artist than that they understand what others hear in her work.
3) Chroma, by Derek Jarman (160 pages)
I said at the top that I deliberately excluded poetry collections from consideration, but that doesn’t mean I can’t sneak some lyrical prose onto the list. Derek Jarman is a towering figure in the history of queer cinema, with films such as Sebastiane and his adaptation of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II addressing queer themes in an era of heavy social stigma. But he also wrote several books, the last of which was Chroma, a series of freewheeling essays on color. Jarman, with a tight yet expressive prose style, explores all possible avenues into the concept of color: scientific, historical, cultural, and personal.
Indeed, while Jarman’s writing often resembles the fragmentary style of pre-Socratic philosophers, Chroma is an intensely personal work for Jarman: he began writing these essays on color as he was going blind from AIDS-related complications. There’s a sense of both urgency and resignation behind all of these essays, for he must enjoy the sensation of color while he can, while still accepting the inevitable with dignity. These themes come to a head in the essay “Into the Blue,” which includes a tender tribute to his past lovers who have lost their lives to AIDS, and which served as the basis for the narration in Jarman’s final film, Blue. In part because it’s the most obscure book on this list, Chroma is the book I most recommend.
2) The Tombs of Atuan, by Ursula K. Le Guin (146 pages)
So far, the books I’ve included on this list have have been dense affairs, compressing a lot of themes, motifs, and ideas into a small package. The Tombs of Atuan, the sequel to Ursula K. Le Guin’s fantasy classic A Wizard of Earthsea, goes in the opposite direction. It tells the story of Tenar, a girl who was taken from her family at young age to serve as a priestess to dark gods in the Tombs of Atuan. When Ged, the protagonist from the first book, breaks into the tombs to steal a piece of a magical amulet, Tenar traps him in the underground labyrinth and contemplates how best to dispose of him. But slowly, she forges a personal connection with Ged, which allows her to start recovering her past identity.
The Tombs of Atuan is such a pleasant swerve as a sequel. Whereas A Wizard of Earthsea takes Ged across countless islands across Le Guin’s fictional world, The Tombs of Atuan almost completely confines itself to one location. And that setting suits the novel perfectly, as Le Guin is aiming for a work of great psychological insight. The cavernous, intricate layout of the tombs is symbolic of Tenar’s journey of self-realization, and on a logistical level it works well in literally trapping two characters in conflict together. The Tombs of Atuan also holds the distinction of being the only novel I can remember reading in one sitting, so if that’s not an endorsement, I don’t know what is.
1) Silas Marner, by George Eliot (230 pages)
Let’s close this list with a real classic, shall we? Like The Tombs of Atuan, this is another story of intense personal transformation. The title figure of George Eliot’s Silas Marner is a miserly old weaver living in rural England. He has little contact with broader society until two life-changing events happen in quick succession. First, someone steals all the gold he’s been hoarding; second, a blond-haired infant wanders into his little cabin. Silas resolves to raise the child himself, and in doing so slowly finds happiness greater than all his lost wealth.
In one sense, Silar Marner is a proudly unsubtle story: the connection between Silas’s gold and Eppie (as he names the girl) is so obvious that Silas literally mistakes Eppie for the gold when she first crawls into his hut. But there’s actually lot going on underneath the surface here. Eliot uses this fable-like story to explore a number of social themes relevant to Victorian England, from the vagaries of religion to the effects of industrialization of rural English life to the public and private foibles of the aristocracy. In short order, Silar Marner stirs up the sentiments, then spurs one into thought—exactly what one is looking for in a book by Eliot. It’s almost like reading Middlemarch in miniature.
Thus endeth the list. What are your thoughts on these picks? Anything that sounds especially enticing, or am I completely off-base with these? Let me know in the comments! If you’re still looking for book recommendations, then check out my response to the Literary Fiction Book Tag.
And, as always, thanks for your time.