Books for a short attention span
December 16, 2018 12:21 AM   Subscribe

I am looking for items I can read in a short amount of time. This question is specific to English-language books and not any other type of media.

Some examples are:
graphic nonfiction,
short books (fewer than 200 pages),
collections of essays or speeches, or other stand-alone sections,
short stories (science fiction, mysteries, thrillers and horror), and
books with many pictures, such as surveys of art or architecture, or books of maps.

I am open and curious, but my nonfiction interests include:
urban issues,
mental health,
political how-to's,
information design,
climate change solutions,
lesbian and related topics, and
progressive issues, strategy and tactics.

I have read "Rules for Radicals" already.

Looking forward to your suggestions!
posted by maurreen to Media & Arts (19 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Very short books/novellas I've read and enjoyed:

The Grownup, Gillian Flynn
The Uncommon Reader, Alan Bennett
The Embassy of Cambodia, Zadie Smith (entire novella at link in The New Yorker)
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 12:31 AM on December 16, 2018

Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo", Zora Neale Hurston
posted by frumiousb at 12:57 AM on December 16, 2018

The chapter "Alone in the Kitchen With an Eggplant" (you can read the whole chapter at the Google Books link) from Laurie Colwin's excellent book Home Cooking is all about her experience of living in a tiny studio apartment in Greenwich Village. There are detailed descriptions of both the apartment and of her routines living there alone. I love that book and that chapter in particular.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 3:54 AM on December 16, 2018 [2 favorites]

Oops! That was meant to go in a different thread, but come to think of it, it actually makes sense in this one too.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 3:55 AM on December 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

Some short but classic and indispensable novels:
  • Goodbye Columbus, by Philip Roth (156 pages). The book is longer because it contains other stories. They are also great.
  • The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald (180 pages).
  • Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad (125 pages). But if your desire for brevity is truly because of a short attention span, you might find this a difficult read in spite of its brevity.
  • Notes from Underground, by Fyodor Dostoevsky (120 pages). Difficulty warning.
  • Journey to the East, by Hermann Hesse (110 pages).
  • The Crying of Lot 49, by Thomas Pynchon (152 pages). Very accessible, for Pynchon.
  • Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe (190 pages). The sequel to this, No Longer at Ease, is also pretty great, but they can be read, and are usually published, separately.
If this sort of thing interests you, memail me. I really do have a short attention span, and love short novels.
posted by ubiquity at 5:26 AM on December 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

Subscribe to the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Isaac Asimov's Magazine, or both.

Buy the various Best American [] Writing of the Year anthologies that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt publishes in its The Best American Series.

Read poetry. Even good poetry is often someone else's good poetry, but one way or another you know fast. Sometimes you have no idea what this poem is about, but it blows up in your face and then you have to know. Given your other listed interests, Sarah Lindsay might be a good place to start. (Full disclosure: sometimes I stop strangers on the street and press Sarah Lindsay poems on them.)
posted by ckridge at 5:54 AM on December 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

In graphic nonfiction, Box Brown's Andre the Giant and Is This Guy For Real? (about Andy Kaufman) are good, quick reads.
I also read Michael Kupperman's All the Answers — about his father, “Quiz Kid” Joel Kupperman (and previously recommended here) — in a day.
posted by D.Billy at 6:08 AM on December 16, 2018

Vivek Shraya’s book I’m Afraid of Men is very short and very good (and more nuanced than the title might suggest.)
John Berger’s Ways of Seeing is short and is made up of essays and has pictures
Barbara Ehrenreich’s Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer is longer than 200 pages but is essays that can probably stand alone and also is written in a voice/style that’s smart and intellectual and interesting but also just...not needlessly dense in the way some books are. (I also have attention span issues and I find this helpful.).
posted by needs more cowbell at 7:02 AM on December 16, 2018

I just read Hurdy Gurdy Girl's nomination of "Alone In The Kitchen With An Eggplant", and was about to suggest "heck, read Laurie Colwin's whole book a chapter at a time" right before I saw her follow-up. She had a similar sequel called More Home Cooking. These are food books, but while there is the occasional recipe they're more "books about food" than they are cookbooks; each chapter is about some kind of food-related thing, like "learning how to feed yourself when you're a young and broke adult and how that leads you to invent weird comfort-food things" or "how to cope when you go to a dinner party and the hosts serve you something completely wack-a-doo or terrible" or "the peculiarities of cooking when you're in your rental home on a vacation". As well as "working with black beans" or "perfecting this specific gelatine dessert".

The food writer M.F.K. Fisher's Consider The Oyster is similar; it's essays-with-recipes, largely, but it's all about that particular food - getting into the history, cultivation, and culinary uses, as well as offering some personal memory anecdotes. It's a short book, and she's a lovely writer. If you like her, I can also suggest her How To Cook A Wolf - it's more recipe-heavy, but it's a fascinating document because it was first written during World War II and was conceived as a way to help people cope with wartime rationing by reviving some older ideas about home economics and kitchen thrift techniques. Then it was updated with further commentary and re-published in the 1950s, with further comment pushing back against some of the overly-regimented ideas about meal planning that were coming into vogue in the 1950s. It's a fascinating window into both time periods, and has some very good advice for economy even today.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:15 AM on December 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

Sum by neuroscientist David Eagleman is a fantastic collection of tiny stories about the afterlife. You can read the first one in about 5 minutes in the bookshop. From your list of interests I’d guess it’d be right up your street.
posted by tomp at 8:00 AM on December 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

Jerome K. Jerome, Told After Supper (funny Christmas ghost stories)
Susan Hill, The Woman in Black
Daryl Gregory, We Are All Completely Fine
Seanan McGuire, Every Heart a Doorway
Martha Wells, All Systems Red
posted by Wobbuffet at 8:08 AM on December 16, 2018

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata has some interesting things to say about our roles in society and associated expectations. It clocks in at 176 pages.
posted by topophilia at 8:47 AM on December 16, 2018

I'm going to talk about type of books rather than suggest titles. First look for older books. There was a period when the market was flooded with paperbacks and everyman classics and there were thousands of titles, and a great many of these books were short fiction and non fiction, many of them what would be classed as novellas now. But then the publishing industry discovered that they could get more profit from having fewer titles that sold more, and to justify increasing the price on the books they sold, they put out longer and longer books.

This means that science fiction from the seventies tends to be much shorter than current science fiction, and in my opinion, the longer current books are mainly filler and would make better short books. The same goes for pretty much every genre there is.

Look for classic or older fiction that does not have the Victorian obviously-paid-by-the-word verbosity. The Agatha Christie mysteries are now period pieces set in a past century. Older books are really valuable because you can now see the cultural biases and prejudices in them, which in turn will help you start looking for the current cultural biases and prejudices and default assumptions that are dead wrong in our current climate of thought.

Look for classics on the high school or junior high school reading list that you may have missed. Books like "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "Lord of the Flies" and"The Cricket on the Hearth"are probably the right length. Reading lists often have a host of alternative titles that you will not have encountered.

Non fiction that is older will often be badly out of date. My dad had a number of paperbacks on various non fiction subject: the Precolumbian European contact with America, Silent Spring, human anatomy etc. Those ones won't do because there is much new data on all those subjects a lot of which contradicts the current information. That's the type of older book to avoid. Books of that depth and length are still being produced but now they tend to be either privately published, so hard for you to examine in person to evaluate and short on author reputation, or be glossy with pictures to justify charging more for them. Look for those books that are meant for showy gifts, the ubiquitous coffee table books. For books that cover current science and rapidly changing fields look for books that will fill your lap, but which have not as much text. Look for them at the library. It's easy enough to decide that you are interested in farming adaptions to climate change and look for the right section in the library. You'll be able to rule out half the books as too dense at a glance. The four or five that are the right thickness and binding type can be pulled out and flipped open to see if they have the right print to picture density inside.

Also look for non-fiction for older children, on subjects you don't know much about. If you already know about the subject children's books won't provide anything new and interesting, but if you zero in on specific subjects that you have never read about before - Bletchley Park, castle sieges, coelecanths, a lesbian's biography, Christmas tree farming, worker's unions in Indonesia, etc. you should get some good half hour to forty-five minute reads.
posted by Jane the Brown at 9:39 AM on December 16, 2018 [2 favorites]

Also: I love how you formatted your list of non-fiction interests into a bell curve!
posted by Jane the Brown at 9:40 AM on December 16, 2018 [4 favorites]

Last Night at the Lobster, by Stewart O'Nan - 176 pages and very entertaining

Several of Seanan McGuire's books are basically story collections, just with the same characters. The new one, Ghost Roads; the Indexing series, and the Velveteen series come to mind, but some of the others may be as well.
posted by still_wears_a_hat at 2:46 PM on December 16, 2018

Neil Gaiman's books of short stories:
Smoke and Mirrors
Fragile Things
Trigger Warning (I have not read this one but just added it to my list since I loved the other two)
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 5:16 PM on December 16, 2018

Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 5:22 PM on December 16, 2018

Any of Samantha Irby's books. Humorous, poignant essays by a lesbian of color. I devoured these books.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 5:25 PM on December 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

Seconding Gaiman.

John Berger's To the Wedding, 201 pages, told in short bits jumping from person to person, with no word out of place. It is about good things happening to a girl to whom the worst possible thing is happening. It is by the same John Berger who wrote Ways of Seeing, a seminal work of art criticism, recommended above.
posted by ckridge at 6:13 PM on December 16, 2018

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