Tomorrow being Thanksgiving, I imagine a lot of you reading this are doing so on your phone. Once you are finished with this article - and any others you may want to read on this illustrious site populated by attractive people - I implore you to put your phone down and take up a book. One of these books, in fact! For the books listed in this article are quite brief, easily dispatched in an afternoon, whether read or listened to on tape. Got a flight layover to kill? Driving all day to see the family? These short works will help you make short work of travel boredom. And when you’re done, you can leave me a nasty comment for that salesman pun. I’ve already gone and thrown up because of it.
The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon
This novel tells the story of Oedipa Maas, neurotic late-20s Californian woman who is charged by her recently-deceased ex-boyfriend Pierce Inverarity to execute his will. She meets many people, all of whom have absurd names, and gets involved in a conspiracy involving the mail.
Let’s get this out of the way: Pynchon hates this book. That’s fine; I hated V. and never finished it, so he and I are square. You should not read this book because it is particularly good or bad or whatever. You should read this book because it takes everything anyone with any sanity loathes about postmodernism and throws it back in postmodernism’s stupid face. It has all the things postmoderns love, like overt symbolism and goofy names and contemporary branding, but it actually has a plot and actually makes a point the way a book worth reading is meant to. And that point, fittingly, is that stories are important to us just because. Oedipa is a big bag of paranoia by the novel’s end, but in the familiar way that we all become paranoid when we are maybe 10 pages from the end of a book. It’s weird, it’s funny, it’s kind of beautiful.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
This novel tells the story of Janie Crawford, a headstrong black woman living in 1920s Florida, who recounts her colorful life and experiences while married to a succession of three drastically different men.
I tell people to read this book because it’s one of the few books I love while not quite understanding why. Janie is sharp, and Hurston is eloquent, and the story is funny and human and moving and all the other things that make a great story great. But there’s some essential thing about it I’ve never quite nailed down that elevates it from an enjoyable book to a book I can’t live without. Perhaps you’ll figure it out. My guess is it has something to do with how the book deal with love and its power. If you pick this one, try not to read it out in pub, unless you don’t mind bittersweetly weeping while there’s people around.
Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee
This novel tells the story of The Magistrate, an aging man and citizen of the Empire, who has presided over a border settlement buttressed up against the land of the Barbarians for decades. He is informed that the Empire plans to make war on the Barbarians soon, and he is to help. Faced with this charge, he instead chooses idiosyncratic rebellion.
This is one of those books that smart people start talking about when the developed world starts to think fascism is attractive again. Y’know, like right now. It is one of the most powerful statements against apartheid specifically and oppression generally ever put to page. The Magistrate is a perfect mirror for the modern citizen in an industrialized nation; he is Us, and that bothers us. He is that type of quiet hero that you want to win but can’t necessarily cheer on because of his faults. His commander may tell him the Empire is as stake, but what is really on the line here in his soul, and the reader’s as well. You should put this on your list even if you don’t read it while you’re traveling.
Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West
This novella tells the story of an unnamed male advice columnist writing under the pen name of Miss Lonelyhearts trying to keep his sanity together despite his work, his hateful boss, and the whiles of one Mrs. Doyle.
Have you ever read a book that was more like a painting than a book? Would you like to? Read this. And keep in mind that I don’t mean to say that this novella is just one incredibly detailed scene. It is like a painting in that its prose often bypasses your logic center and just evokes reaction; often amusement, as this is another dark comedy. You may not know things have occurred while you read this book, but you will certainly feel that they did. And the story ends just before all of this business gets stale.
Mort by Sir Terry Pratchett
This novel tells the story of Mort, a grown boy who is chosen by Death to take on an apprenticeship in grim reaping. Death promptly goes on vacation, Mort botches the job, and the world nearly ends.
Had to end this on a high note. I find Pratchett to be harder to pitch than one would think, given his accessibility and popularity. It may have something to do with him having written 40ish books over his too-brief life. I picked Mort over other Discworld books because it’s my favorite example of how Pratchett wrote what I call the “right” kind of book for young people. They’re for the kind of kid who, when told they can’t read something until they’re older, only wants to read that forbidden book. You’ve been Mort at some point in your life, probably your first day at your first job. Read this and love your younger self.