Shelf Awareness: Novellas — A healthy little summer snack for the brain

As I continue to revisit my reading goals for the year, one that I have sought to focus on lately is reading more books all the way through. I had set out to finish at least two books per month and had been just barely meeting that goal.

Being a new homeowner, projects around the house and garden have taken up a lot more of my time than I’d anticipated. Though I am reading something every day, I found that I am choosing books that are difficult for me to finish reading in a timely fashion. I am admittedly a very slow reader, I get distracted easily or want to learn more about the topic of the book I am reading so I start going down the research rabbit hole.

In an effort to find more titles I can complete in just a week or two (or even more quickly), I have been unearthing these little gems known as novellas. The definition of a novella is usually something along these lines of: a story with a compact and pointed plot, a work of fiction intermediate in length and complexity between a short story and a novel, a short novel or a long short story.

There is room for a lot of interpretation in this, so for a more concrete set of parameters, the novella is generally between 50-200 pages, roughly 17,500-40,000 words in length. For reference, at around 250 pages or 80,000 words it treads into the realm of the standard novel, a typical 400-page book might be about 100,000 words depending on the font.

Historically, the literary world has been rife with scorn towards anything labeled a novella, yet this raises the question: does size always denote quality? Surely, any book over 400 pages is an impressive feat of reading and writing. To churn out a mountain of pages and still result in a cohesive story takes time, effort, practice and skill, but does that mean their sheer size makes them fundamentally more difficult to write or read than the novella? I believe that in some ways the humble novella must be just as difficult to write as a 500-plus page behemoth.

The novella requires economy of language; every word and detail must count. There is no room for excessively wordy explanations, complicated lineage trees, lengthy exposition or detailed political maps. Any world building has to be done efficiently and resourcefully. As with anything done in miniature, it doesn’t necessarily take less skill to craft or read a slim novella than it does to tackle their large-scale counterparts. It takes great care to intricately piece together all of the tiny details.

Perhaps a good analogy is that you don’t always feel like eating a 72-ounce steak with a hulking mass of potatoes loaded with butter just to prove you can do it. Yes, the steak may be impeccably prepared and delicious, and there may be a great appeal to proving your mettle, but is that something that is sustainable to do all the time? Moreover, we are not all so inclined to enter a steak-eating competition at any point in our lives.

What I mean to get at is that sometimes, especially during summer, I tend to crave light and crisp instead of heavy meals, and I imagine some of you may feel this way as well. On a warm day, there is nothing that hits the spot better than a sweet little nutrient-packed blueberry or strawberry, fresh from the garden. Their size, sweetness and time it takes to consume does not reduce the enjoyment we gain from them or their ability to transport vital nutrients into our bodies.

I don’t want to diminish the accomplishment of making your way through a massive text — the mental energy and sheer time it takes to slog through an epic tome gives the reader some serious literary bragging rights. If you achieve genuine pleasure from this type of reading, I think that is fantastic! We all have different ways of moving through the world, different tastes and preferences, and you should read whatever helps enhance your experience in life.

So if you are looking for a reading challenge of epic proportions you could try out one of these cranium-straining volumes: Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth, Stephen King’s The Stand, or Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle series.

Finishing one of these roughly 1,000 page monstrosities is certainly an accomplishment worthy of swagger. Knausgard’s series of six fictional autobiographical novels totals 3,706 pages and gives an exhaustive accounting of nearly every detail of his life including how he makes his coffee, and his bankcard PIN. While I’m sure there are arguments for the benefits of immersing yourself in the minutiae of another human being’s day-to-day existence, sometimes I just want something short and sweet. That’s where the novella can come in.

These novellas have been perfect reads for me this summer. I can read them in one or two sittings on hot, lazy weekend afternoons. They often contain highly engaging and thought-provoking stories. Their brevity can lend themselves to more ambiguous endings, which in the past felt unsatisfying to me, but I have enjoyed letting my imagination run wild filling in the blanks imagining the possible outcomes of the story and putting my own interpretive spin on them. They are also great for getting me out of a reading slump; something quick and highly engaging often helps me gain my confidence back and primes my brain for further reading.

On the topic of noteworthy story lengths, the two titles I found most frequently when researching “world’s shortest novel” were Baby Shoes commonly attributed to Ernest Hemingway, and El Dinosaurio (The Dinosaur) by Augusto Monterroso. Both stories consist of just one line, the former reading “For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn,” and the latter reading “Cuando despertó, el dinosaurio todavía estaba allí.” (Roughly translated, “When he awoke, the dinosaur was still there.”)

I don’t want to digress too far down that particular rabbit hole, so for now, I will leave these two as mere curiosities that may pique your interest and get us all thinking about what constitutes a story or a novel. This helped me to broaden my concept of what defines a story or a novel. In case you were also curious (I enjoy these random factoids), The Guinness Book of World Records gives the honor of world’s longest novel to Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, a novel in seven volumes totaling 4,215 pages and 9,609,000 characters including spaces.

So if you’re looking for a refreshing little bite of literature you can polish off in an afternoon, I encourage you to try out reading a novella this summer. At the end of this column, I have included a list of suggestions to get you started. Some deal with tough subjects, but some are more lighthearted in nature. They run the gamut all the way from heartwarming, strangely funny and sometimes mind-bending fantasy/sci-fi tales. Almost all of them are under 200 pages. Some are lesser-known works by famous authors; they can be a great way to try out an author before diving into some of their longer pieces.

You can check out any of these through the library, just click the title and you will be directed to our library catalog. You can place the item on hold for pick up at any of our branches or you can have them delivered to your home. As always, if you have any questions at all don’t hesitate to contact us at the Philomath library by phone at 541-929-3016. You can also reach out to our systemwide information service in a few different ways, by phone at 541-766-6793 or 541-766-6448, via email at [email protected], or text 541-326-0100 if you have any questions. Happy Reading!

(Julia Engel is a reference librarian at Philomath Community Library. She can be reached via email at [email protected] or by phone at 541-929-3016.)

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

All Systems Red by Martha Wells

An Elderly Lady Is Up to No Good by Helene Tursten

Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

Black Water by Joyce Carol Oates

The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery

Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote

Candide by Voltaire

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo

The End We Start From by Megan Hunter

Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom

Fox 8 by George Saunders

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark

The Girl Who Reads on the Metro by Christine Féret-Fleury

Grief is the Thing With Feathers by Max Porter

The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide

The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

Jillian by Halle Butler

The Juniper Tree by Barbara Comyns

Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto

Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O’Nan

Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf

The Pearl by John Steinbeck

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

The Persian Pickle Club by Sandra Dallas

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

Shopgirl by Steve Martin

Silence of the Chagos by Shenaz Patel

The Sojourn by Andrew Krivak

Split Tooth by Tagaq

The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami

Sula by Toni Morrison

Summerwater by Sarah Moss

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

The Vegetarian by Kang Han

We the Animals by Justin Torres

Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? By Lorrie Moore

A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

The Wife by Meg Wolitzer

Winter in the Blood by James Welch

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