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It’s a common complaint that the best classic books tend to be the longest as well. In 1779, Dr Samuel Johnson described lost paradise like a book that “no one has ever wished for … longer than it is”, and as much as I love Blown away by the wind, its more than 1000 pages are more than enough. So here is a list of the best classic books which are also the the shortest.
I have defined “short” here as “about 200 pages or less” (readable in one sitting), and have used roughly the canonical perception of “classic” while promoting various voices. These classic little books are perfect for anyone looking to increase their intake of classics but just couldn’t find the time!
Best short classic books: less than 200 pages
# 1. The turn of the screw by Henry James
This 1898 horror novel features an unnamed housekeeper hired to care for Miles and Flora, a couple of young orphans. But things quickly start to take a turn for the worse – and one wonders how much the kids are to blame.
It’s so short that if I talked about it any longer, I’d ruin the whole book for you, so I’ll stop there.
# 2. Farm animal by George Orwell
An allegorical novel published in 1945, Farm animal features an uprising of a group of animals against their human farmer. The utopian existence they are trying to establish quickly collapses in the face of greed and selfishness. Orwell wanted a mirror of the Russian Revolution and Stalin’s reign.
I read it when I was 9 when my grandfather, an extraordinarily literate man, sent it to me from Bangladesh with Silas marner. Eliot’s short story never sparked my interest, but Orwell’s is certainly worth reading.
# 3. Of mice and Men by John Steinbeck
In this 1937 novel from the Depression, George and Lenny are two itinerant workers looking for work in California. They hold on in the hope of one day owning their own farm, but George quickly realizes that the American dream is just a mirage for them.
This was my GCSE English text and I’m not very keen on it. Yet somehow I catch myself thinking about the characters a lot, which is why he ended up on this list.
# 4. Gatsby the magnificent by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The film starring Leonardo DiCaprio catapulted this 1925 short story to additional fame it deserved a few years ago. It is narrated by Nick, a deliberately colorless character who watches with reluctant interest at Jay Gatsby unsuccessfully attempting to woo Nick’s married cousin, Daisy. Naturally, it all ends in tragedy.
None of the characters in this book are particularly likable, and it didn’t make me want to read any of Fitzgerald’s other books, but the liveliness of the summer of 1922 in New York City is second to none.
# 5. An Account of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave by Frederick Douglass
This is an 1845 memoir by one of the leaders of the abolitionist movement, Frederick Douglass. He tells the story of his life in slavery, constantly mistreated by the owners, until his eventual escape.
Again, this is a very short partial autobiography, but it was extraordinarily popular. It sold 5,000 copies in the first four months and gave the anti-slavery moment significant support.
# 6. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Sensation since its publication in 1818, the story of Victor Frankenstein and his namesake monster is no longer to present.
#seven. Yellow wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Published in 1892, it might be an exaggeration to call this one of the best classics books never wrote. But he is a little glimpse into the mind of a psychologically disturbed woman.
# 8. We have always lived in the castle by Shirley Jackson
Jackson is best known for his fabulous The Haunting of Hill House, which at 208 pages also deserves its own place on this list. This time, however, I chose to highlight his 1962 novel We have always lived in the castle – an adventure full of dark humor through the life of Merricat Blackwood. Six years ago, most of the Blackwood clan died in a case of arsenic poisoning. Since then, the remaining Blackwoods have led an existence surrounded by hatred of the villagers. When Merricat’s cousin, Charles, appears and disrupts their life, she becomes determined to drive him away.
A wonderfully weird book, filled with characters who are just sane enough to make their madness even scarier.
# 9. Who passed by Nella Larsen
Larsen’s novel, starring his childhood friends Irene and Clare, was published in 1929 during the Harlem Renaissance. Biracial Clare ‘passes’ white and has settled into a comfortable life with an unsuspecting white husband; when she later reconnects with Métis Irene, it sets off a chain of events that culminates in tragedy.
#ten. Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote
This household name was released in 1958, immediately setting off a storm of publicity as various ‘It Girls’ from the 1950s in New York City claimed to be the role model for Holly Golightly, the socialite whose life forms the basis of the novel.
The film with Audrey Hepburn of course only contributed to the popularity of the novel.
# 11. Orlando: a biography by Virginie Woolf
One of Woolf’s most famous books, 1928 Orlando tells the story of the eponymous character, who wakes up one morning to find he’s transformed into a woman – and immortal, too.
I found it a bit confusing at times; I don’t like the modernist style very much. But it’s worth reading and it’s a great (albeit strange) journey through over 300 years of history in just 100 pages.
# 12. Sula by Toni Morrison
While Morrison is best known for Beloved, this 1973 short story was published more than a decade before her. Like Who passed, it features a pair of childhood friends – Nel and Sula – who are separated by tragedy.
# 13. Chronicle of an announced death by Gabriel García Márquez, Translated by Gregory Rabassa
Marquez’s 1981 short story opens with Santiago’s death, mentioned in the title. Although his impending murder is well known to his entire village, a combination of factors means not a single person warns him. The book explores the amalgamation of morality and responsibility that culminates in murder.
# 14. Candid by Voltaire
Written by Voltaire in three days, this small collection of chapters was extremely influential in philosophy and in satire in particular. It tells the story of a young man named Candide who is educated in Leibnizian optimism – that is, the belief that we live in the best possible world and that whatever happens is for the best. But as Candide’s life turns into misery, he finds it harder and harder to believe it.
# 15. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
While being evacuated during a war, a plane full of school children crashes on a desert island. Report the chaos.
While the fact that this 1954 novel didn’t contain a single female character put me off when I first read it in Grade 10, it’s actually a very interesting projection of how civilization ( in the form of adolescents) deteriorates with horrific rapidity. when placed in a suboptimal situation. Realistic? Hopefully not. Interesting? Sure.
# 16. The prince by Niccolo Machiavelli
Unlike most of the other books on this list, this one doesn’t tend to be in the high school curriculum. But it’s absolutely fascinating – one of the best classic books you can read. The prince is a 1532 treatise on political philosophy by the famous Italian statesman Machiavelli, whose reputation for intelligence is certainly confirmed by the contents of this book.
# 17. Twelve years a slave by Solomon Northup
Like with The life of Frederick Douglass, this book is an autobiography (published in 1853) by a black man who experienced slavery. Unlike Douglass, Northup was born free in New York; here he recounts his kidnapping in Washington DC and the details of his slavery in the Deep South. The 2013 film adaptation won a well-deserved Oscar.
# 18. The art of War by Sun Tzu
224 pages (less if you get smaller editions)
It has absolutely been one of the most influential and best classic books in history, inspiring military leaders through the centuries. His knowledge of human nature is no less deep to be around 2,500 years old.
# 19. Black beauty by Anna Sewell
Although it now tends to be marketed to children, Sewell’s 1877 short story was originally written for adults, and its themes of death, pain, and loneliness are certainly heavy. The titular protagonist Black Beauty is a horse that grew up in Victorian England; this account of his life and times has as much emotional impact as one would expect, given the treatment of animals during the period.
# 20. Souls of black folk by WEB Du Bois
This 1903 collection of essays by prominent civil rights activist William Du Bois is a cornerstone not only of African American literature, but also of the social sciences, marking a first contribution to the field of sociology. Its inspiring and fundamental impact on the civil rights movement cannot be overstated, with some historians tracing the protests of the 1960s to this book.
Looking for other books you should read, but don’t have time to do so? Here is a list of 50 must-have books under 250 pages!