Short Books for the Time-Pressed

There are two ways of ending up with a short book: start with a blank page and build up, or start with a bloated manuscript and chop. Lorin Stein, a senior editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, wishes he saw more of the former. "Writers are pushing themselves to write longer than the story they have to tell," Stein says. But short reads may be making a comeback. Penguin Classics has issued three series of slim stand-alone and excerpted texts by Confucius, Marco Polo, and Vladimir Nabokov, among others. The slim volumes were created to capitalize on people's "need for speed," says Penguin Classics executive editor Elda Rotor. And editors are always on the lookout for the next small wonder. "I'm definitely open to our publishing very short novels," Stein says. Just don't call it a novella, he says. That sounds so, like, 1899.

Here's a glance at five short works I recently read, one per day, over about a week. These were my criteria:

Juiciness Nothing tedious, nothing ponderous, nothing that could tempt me to put down the book and check my e-mail. Pure fun.

Brevity Readable in about as much time as it would take to watch a movie.

Grandeur Short in length but epic in scope.

Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street by Herman Melville. Imagine a new guy showing up for a job at your office, excelling at his work and generally keeping to himself. One day you ask him to lend you his stapler and he replies, "I would prefer not to." A few weeks later you ask if he wouldn't mind reviewing a PowerPoint before you meet with some clients, since he's a good proofreader. "I would prefer not to," he replies. In fact, he prefers not to do anything, until you fire him, and then he replies that he'd rather not leave his desk. Transpose this to a 19th-century copyist's office (back when dozens of human hands did the work of a single copy machine), and you have the absurd mechanics of Bartleby. Ah, Bartleby. The first time I read this story I was a high school senior who thought civil disobedience was something Indian pacifists and Quakers did. Ten years later, as I reread it on the subway ride home on Friday, surrounded by hordes of corporate drones frowning into their smart phones, it clicked. How could Bartleby just disengage like that? Not just how dare he, but what enabled him? What exactly was he refusing? And—ding ding ding—what would happen if I practiced that refrain? Who it's for: fans of "Office Space," anyone with a parasitic co-worker, anyone tuned in to the absurdity of modern life, anyone with moral qualms about the rat race, anyone who would feel solace or perhaps vindication at watching a puny nobody with neat handwriting tell the world to shove off.

The Dead by James Joyce. The last work in "Dubliners," "The Dead" explores a priggish man's attitude toward the world around him as he parties with his friends and family. In college I knew an English professor who told me he thought the most beautiful sentence in the English language was the conclusion: "His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead." It turns out that many people are obsessed with the ending. Critics love to scour the final two paragraphs, wondering if Joyce means that the main character—and all of humanity, really—is about to turn over a new leaf or continue shlepping through life as a conceited, semisomnolent shlub. Lest this seem like a spoiler, don't worry. In Joyce every word contains a universe. You could study this story 18 times with a different experience. Or you could easily glide over the deeper meanings and read for plot, or for the music of the language. This time I read it at a cafe on a Saturday morning, lingering long enough to drink two large mugs of coffee sweetened with condensed milk. As usual when I read the end, I felt it came too soon. Who it's for: people who like hunting for metaphors, patient readers, people who want to sample Joyce before signing up for the longer works, anyone who wonders what it means to be alive, sentient, relevant.

Daisy Miller by Henry James. The general vibe I got from the preceding two stories is that we either have to do what society tells us to and die, or refuse to do what society tells us to—and die. By Monday I had had enough of death and dying, so I picked up this tale about a flirtatious teenage heiress who cavorts around Europe raising eyebrows among her genteel acquaintances. The fashion-forward Daisy drags around her little brother like a pet Chihuahua, insults the hostess at a party she crashes, mesmerizes a dorky American student and goes on unchaperoned promenades with single men—the 1878 equivalent of making a sex tape. When her upper-class clique warns her she's compromising herself, Daisy shrugs them off. Is she foolish or liberated? Adventurous or vulgar? Innocent or any of its opposites? In fact, she straddles all these categories. James wrote this long before Paris Hilton exploited the boundaries between appearing calculating and callow, and it was refreshing to see that women have been torturing and confusing men with this ambiguity for generations. Who it's for: Hiltonologists, anyone interested in a portrait of a society where modesty was still considered a virtue, anyone who thinks nouveau riche starlets should die a painful death.

Silk by Alessandro Baricco. I slipped out of the office at lunch and picked up "Silk" at the bookstore downstairs, and I read it in less than two hours—including a 30-minute telephone break with my dad and ample time for daydreaming. "Silk" was smooth sailing, and that was exactly the point. It's an erotic love story wrought in whispers and fragments. Where other writers unearth the muck of their characters' consciousnesses, Baricco traces silhouettes. A French silk merchant travels to Japan to buy silkworm eggs and meets a striking young woman. Around this premise Baricco builds a story about obsessive long-distance desire, individual agency, and the roots of industrial globalization. He also experiments with form, treating language as a system for carrying meaning across great distances, like two continents or two hearts. Even though I breezed through it, by the end I felt deflated. Was the prose flat, or the symbols a little prickly? The first time I spotted "Silk," in a bookstore in Rome in 2002, I walked right past. In retrospect I made a mistake, not because "Silk" is an amazing book in English, but because it might have been, in Italian. Either way, it's a pleasant way to spend lunch. Who it's for: people curious about the economic and scientific landscape of the early 19th century, anyone who has loved selflessly or from afar, fans of historical fiction, anyone with an hour to spare and a drop of curiosity about contemporary Italian fiction.

Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions by Edwin Abbott. In the time when circles ruled the earth, one little square dared to dream. This square, an inhabitant of Flatland named A Square, receives a portentous visit from a sphere who takes him on trips to Pointland, Lineland and Spaceland. Along the way he discovers how other the worlds work, thereby learning more about his own. But what happens when he tries to convince his society that there are more than just two dimensions? Will anyone believe him? But wait, there's more! "Flatland," you see, is actually a satire of Victorian England. As Abbott describes his society with the precision of a field anthropologist, it's clear he's referring to more than polygons. A citizen's status is determined by his or her shape, where spheres and multilateral shapes have high ranks and simple triangles are the proles. Women, mere lines, are correspondingly simpleminded creatures. So the social fabric is safeguarded by this rigidity of form, since classifying people—er, polygons—by how they appear is the easiest way to keep power for the elite. Who it's for: math geeks with literary aspirations, literary types who fantasize about understanding differential geometry, fans of satire, conspiracy theorists.