Most people agree that short stories are typically under 10,000 words — usually under 7,500 words. Novels are works of fiction longer than 40,000 words. But there is a type of short book that gets lost in between, somewhere in the range of 15,000 to 40,000 words, and is often overlooked. These short books are novellas, and they are the perfect way to spend quiet afternoons and can be read in a day.
Some people read faster than others, but the general consensus is that most adults read between 200 and 300 words per minute, meaning a short book of about 30,000 words should take about two hours to read.
One thing you may note about this list is the absence of books that were written recently. In fact, only one of the seven short books on this list was published after 1988. But this should not surprise anyone familiar with the publishing industry. Writing may be an art, but publishing is certainly a business. Short books simply do not make as much money per sale for the publishing houses.
I have always been a fan of short books. One of my favorite authors, Jim Harrison, made a career out of writing novellas, with successes such as Legends of the Fall and The River Swimmer — nearly a lost art these days. His work inspired me to write my own set of novellas, Somewhere More Than Free.
But below you will find neither Jim’s books nor my book. This is an unbiased list of the best short books to read in a day.
Best Short Books to Read in One Day
7. The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
Anyone else forced to read The House on Mango Street when they were in eighth grade? At the time, I did not really know what to think of it. I had never heard of a vignette, and this short book of about 20,000 words took me much longer than a day to read.
Flash forward many years and Cisneros’s novella has become a staple of reading in American schools. Based on her own life experiences, she tells the story of a Mexican-American girl named Esperanza and the adversity she must overcome growing up in Chicago.
While not all schools have accepted this book, some calling for censorship, those that have surely are exposing students to one of the best short books in American history.
6. Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote
Ashamed as I am to admit it, I first heard of Breakfast at Tiffany’s from the movie, and of course the Deep Blue Something song. But as I became more bookish in my 20’s I discovered the Truman Capote novella and was intrigued. You always hear that the book is better than the movie, and while I had not yet seen the movie, I wanted to read the book first with the assumption that one day I would watch it.
This one did not disappoint. The story revolves around an unnamed narrator and his relationship with an intriguing young woman named Holly Golightly in New York City. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the novella is that Capote supposedly based Golightly off several young women that he knew, including Oona O’Neill, Gloria Vanderbilt and Marilyn Monroe.
Coming in around 26,000 words, Breakfast at Tiffany’s is certainly a book that is readable in a single sitting.
5. The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
In classic Hemingway fashion, The Old Man and the Sea uses sparse language and is excellently paced. The book tells the story of a downtrodden fisherman who is looking for his next (and perhaps last) great catch.
For those well-read Hemingway fans out there, you know that most of what he wrote were fictionalized versions of true stories. That was the case with The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms and even For Whom the Bell Tolls. While The Old Man and the Sea is certainly not a true story, it acted as a metaphor for the aging author — the book was his last major publication.
Winning Hemingway the Nobel Prize, The Old Man and the Sea is a 27,000-word masterpiece that most readers could devour in an afternoon.
See Also: Ranking the Best Ernest Hemingway Books
4. Home by Toni Morrison
I hold Toni Morrison in high regard as one of the greatest American authors of the 20th century. That said, Home is one of her shortest works, but isn’t any less impactful than some of her longer novels. Coming in around 35,000 words, this is definitely a novella you could read in a day — though, given its power, that may be a lot to handle in one sitting.
Home tells the story of Frank Money, a young Black veteran of the Korean War, as he tries to acclimate to a segregated American society in the mid-1950’s. Though some critics have denounced the book’s directness — rather than having the subtlety of some of her other books — Home nonetheless is one of Morrison’s grandest achievements.
3. Animal Farm by George Orwell
One of George Orwell’s most famous books, along with 1984, Animal Farm tells an allegory to the 1917 Russian Revolution. A group of farm animals, fed up with their human farmer and with ambitions to create a fair and equal society on the farm, stage a rebellion.
Given some of Orwell’s extreme political views, the book was met with controversy in some circles, but that should not detract from its place in the American literary canon. At 26,000 words, it’s a great short book to read in an afternoon.
2. The Stranger by Albert Camus
The first time I saw Albert Camus’s The Stranger on the shelf at Borders it caught my eye. The cover is striking. But even more captivating is the story itself. This slim novella of about 36,000 words packs a punch.
The title refers to the main character Meursault, who is often detached from emotion and honest to a fault. This dynamic makes his story fascinatingly short and contemplative.
Don’t simply take my recommendation. Nearly 700,000 ratings on Goodreads have given this short book a 3.98 rating. Written in the 1940’s, The Stranger has stood the increasingly ruthless test of time and endured.
1. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
This pick to top the list of best short books to read in a day should not surprise anyone who has read any of my previous book-ranking lists. John Steinbeck was a master of the novella, publishing several books over his career that were under 40,000 words. While perhaps not Steinbeck’s best book (you can get my opinion on that topic here), Of Mice and Men is undoubtedly an American classic and, I would argue, required reading for anyone who enjoys or writes novellas.
I first heard of this book in my freshman English class of high school. Did I enjoy it then? I thought it was okay, though I was admittedly disengaged and far from bookish at that time in my life. In adulthood, while writing fiction of my own, I decided to give it another try — and I am glad I did. Of Mice and Men is a swift book in its slim word count. At around 30,000 words, its impact is that of a full-length novel.
This is now on my short list of books that I read annually — partly because it’s a short book that I can read in a day, and partly because of its brilliance.
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