Reading for pleasure often seems like an elusive aspiration. Other obligations such as work or school can often eclipse the satisfaction that comes with reading – and actually finishing! – a good work of fiction. Of course, as summer approaches, many of us will be reaching for more accessible “beach reads” to relax and enjoy. And rightly so; after all, it would be difficult to get through War and Peace while sipping a margarita (a potential challenge?). That being said, there are still plenty of accessibly short books – or novellas – out there by some of the most famous authors in the world that are both intellectually fulfilling and brief enough to get you out of the sun before you burn.
In terms of its structure, Melville House notes aptly that a novella is “too short to be a novel, too long to be a short story.” Ian McEwan, no stranger to writing novellas, explains that some critics see their length as a method to “pass off inadequate goods and fool a trusting public.” Yet, when properly executed, the novella’s refusal to fit either role is one of the characteristics that gives it its impact. The novella, McEwan believes, is architecturally one of the most pleasing formats to read. After all, it is “short enough to be read in a sitting or two and for the whole structure to be held in mind at first encounter.” Plenty of famed and talented authors have followed in the tradition of the novella. To name only a few that are don’t get a mention in our top 5; James, Kafka, Conrad, Orwell, Voltaire and the list goes on. These particular five books are some of the most wonderful novellas out there written by some of the most skilled authors in history.
5. ‘Bartleby, the Scrivener’ Herman Melville (40 pages)
“Bartleby, The Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” is a novella by the American author Herman Melville. The book was published in 1853, appearing anonymously in two parts in Putnam’s Magazine. The story’s narrator is a Wall Street lawyer who hires three new scriveners, one of whom is the titular character Bartleby. While at first Bartleby seems like a careful worker, he eventually sinks into a strange form of inertia; his stock response to all requests made of him becomes “I would prefer not to.” Bartleby’s unorthodox behavior grows more extreme, causing confusion and upheaval in the office. At the time of its publication, the story did not receive much acclaim. However, it is now one of the most famous American novellas and has often been considered a precursor of absurdist literature. Herman Melville is also famous for his books “Billy Budd, Sailor” and the excellent and epic novel, “Moby Dick.”
4. ‘The Pearl’ John Steinbeck (90 pages)
“The Pearl,” published in 1947, is a short novel by American author John Steinbeck. The novella narrates the story of Kino, a pearl diver who acquires the so-called ‘pearl of the world.’ At first, Kino is prepared to use the pearl in exchange for the town doctor to treat his young son. Yet, when it becomes clear that he possesses the object, many people start to covet it. Kino’s subsequent journey is one that examines human nature and humanity’s capacity for both greed and cruelty. Steinbeck credits an old Mexican folk tale for the story’s inspiration. According to the author, “The Pearl” was influenced by the philosophy of Carl Jung, and was an attempt to discuss materialism. Steinbeck’s novella has remained popular, and has been widely used in middle and high school classes to explain common concepts such as metaphor and symbolism. Other well known books by Steinbeck include “Of Mice and Men,” “East of Eden,” and “The Grapes of Wrath.”
3. ‘Seize the Day’ Saul Bellow (144 pages)
“Seize the Day” was first published in 1956 and is often considered by critics to be one of the greatest works of the 20th century. The story takes place over a single day in the life of failed 40-something actor, Wilhelm Adler (aka Tommy Wilhelm). Wilhelm’s life is far from spectacular; he is unemployed, separated from his wife and estranged from his children and father. The novella centers around Wilhelm, and a day that forces him to evaluate his life. This was Saul Bellow’s fourth book. Other famous books by Bellow include “The Adventures of Augie March,” “Herzog,” and “Humboldt’s Gift.”
2. ‘Notes From Underground’ Fyodor Dostoyevsky (160 pages)
“Notes From Underground” was published in 1864 in Russian and in 1916 was translated to English. It is considered by many to be the first existentialist novel. The story’s narrator is a retired civil servant living in St. Petersburg. He is unnamed, a rather bitter and isolated character, who is also referred to as “the underground man.” The novella unfolds in two parts. The first is the underground man’s monologue, which calls into question much of Western philosophy; the second part includes a story told in three main segments from the underground man’s perspective. Dostoyevsky’s other literary works also explore human psychology, especially in the often troubled atmosphere of 19th century Russia. A few of his other well-known – and much longer – works include “Crime and Punishment,” “The Idiot,” and “The Brothers Karamazov.”
1. ‘The Crying of Lot 49’ Thomas Pynchon (160 pages)
Published in 1966, “The Crying of Lot 49” tells the story of a woman named Oedipa Maas. After her ex-boyfriend dies, Oedipa becomes co-executor of his estate, and begins to unravel what may be a worldwide conspiracy concerning two feuding mail distribution companies. This book is often considered to be a notable example of postmodern fiction, and has even been included in Time’s “100 Best English-language Novels from 1923-2005.” Buried within the novel are a series of interconnected cultural allusions, the discovery of which adds significant depth and intrigue to the book. For example, there are multiple sly references to both The Beatles and Nabokov’s Lolita. Other famous works by Pynchon include “Against the Day,” “V.,” and “Gravity’s Rainbow.”
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