10 literary classics you can totally read in a week or less

Posted by

Summer is here and many of you are hitting the beach. Lots of you probably read on the beach — hell, there’s even a sub-genre called “beach reads.” If you’re thinking about what to bring and you’ve been shying away from the “literature” or “classics” sections of your bookstore, fear not: this English literature graduate has some great classics you can polish off quickly while soaking in the sunshine.

I kept these below 250 pages (though some editions will be different), and I tried to have a good cross-section of publication eras and countries, but the fact is that shorter works only really became vogue in the 20th century.

Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys

At less than 200 pages, this novel about an English-Caribbean girl trying to find her way is captivating from the very beginning. Though not a pick-me-up, the characters are undeniably charming and funny and the story moving and relatable. Published in 1934, it perfectly captures a time and place that will transport you — even while on vacation.

“You’ve only got to learn how to swank a bit, then you’re all right,” she would say… “Swank’s the word.”

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

At 250 pages, it’s the longest on my list, but Wilde’s prose is so clever it reads at lightning speed. Dorian Gray is a gorgeous and beguiling young man whose portrait shows his evil even while his physical body doesn’t change. Published in 1890, it’s hilarious at times and brutal at others, you’ll want to finish it just to see if he gets what he deserves.

I make a great difference between people. I choose my friends for their good looks, my acquaintances for their good characters, and my enemies for their good intellects. A man cannot be too careful in the choice of his enemies. I have not got one who is a fool. They are all men of some intellectual power, and consequently they all appreciate me.

Quicksand by Nella Larsen

At only 160 pages, Quicksand takes almost no time at all. However it too is not an uplifting read: it’s the story of a woman born to a Danish mother and a West Indian black father. She struggles all her life to find a place to fit in and a race with which to identify. Published in 1928, it’s an important novel to the Harlem Renaissance.

These people yapped loudly of race, of race consciousness, of race pride, and yet suppressed its most delightful manifestations, love of color, joy of rhythmic motion, naive, spontaneous laughter. Harmony, radiance, and simplicity, all the essentials of spiritual beauty in the race they had marked for destructions.

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Less than 200 pages (and a couple of those are illustrations) is a more recent American classic (published in 1969). Its style is humorous, ridiculous, poignant, and tragic all at once. The less you know about the plot(s) the better, I think (I remember fondly my “What the hell…?!” reaction), but you can finish it in a couple of days.

There isn’t any particular relationship between the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep. There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time.

The Stranger (or The Outsider) by Albert Camus

Alright so this is a translation from the original French, but I figured you might be getting sick of my American and English-centric list. The Stranger is around 150 pages of intense absurdity. It takes place in Algeria and the beaches and sea and the sun (that sun!) will remind you of your surroundings while on vacation. Just make sure not to let the sun do what it did to Camus’ protagonist.

I said that people never change their lives, that in any case one life was as good as another and that I wasn’t dissatisfied with mine here at all.

Death in Venice by Thomas Mann

A translation from German coming in at around only 60 pages (efficient German is efficient in English, too), this novella tells the story of a man on holiday who falls in love with forbidden fruit. The prose is hauntingly beautiful and tragic. It’s guaranteed to move you despite being so short.

Nothing is more curious and awkward than the relationship of two people who only know each other with their eyes — who meet and observe each other daily, even hourly and who keep up the impression of disinterest either because of morals or because of a mental abnormality.

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

At 181 pages, this is the story of Okonkwo and his Nigerian tribe’s life in the wilderness of Africa and their colonization by the British. Not an easy read by a long shot (and the violence can be a bit much for some readers), but an important one to be sure.

Perhaps down in his heart Okonkwo was not a cruel man. But his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness. It was deeper and more intimate than the fear of evil and capricious gods and of magic, the fear of the forest, and of nature, malevolent, red in tooth and claw. Okonkwo’s fear was greater than these. It was not external, but lay deep within himself.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

At around 223 pages, Frankenstein isn’t as long as you may think it is. Published in 1818, the novel is gripping and truly unnerving — especially when the question of who the “real” monster is arises. You may think you know this story, but it’s worth it to see how our modern-day monster fetish arguably began.

I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy the one, I will indulge the other.

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

It’s 214 pages of an angsty teenager talking to you about his life, and I’d be surprised if you can’t relate to at least some of it. All of the action in the book takes place in a couple days, and although the protagonist may not seem charming, there’s something about him that will stick with you.

I still act sometimes like I was only about twelve. Everybody says that, especially my father. It’s partly true, too, but it isn’t all true. People always think something’s all true.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

At less than 200 pages in most editions, The Great Gatsby is a fast-paced read with witty language and quick dialogue. If you’ve been avoiding it because it’s a contender for “the great American novel,” give it a go; it’s not nearly as daunting as it may seem.

He had one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced, or seemed to face, the whole external world for an instant and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself.

This list is by no means exhaustive! It certainly is difficult choosing just ten, but hopefully it’s enough to give you some inspiration to try something new by trying something old. I’d love to get your perspective on “classic” short novels or novellas to pack on vacation… maybe even some that are a little more cheery than the list I’ve curated!

Comments on 10 literary classics you can totally read in a week or less

  1. After years of being on my mental literary checklist, I recently got around to reading Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. It’s an odd little book (146 pages!), and I think it would definitely appeal to some of the other readers hanging around this site. And thank you for reminding me of another work on that mental list I need to get to over the summer – The Picture of Dorian Gray.

  2. All of my fellow fantasy/history nerds should read “The Once and Future King” by T.H. White. It’s essentially a different spin on Arthurian legend, more of a retelling from a slightly different angle. It’s a larger book, but White breaks it up into 3 or 4 smaller sections that can easily be conquered in a few days (I read the whole shebang in my honeymoon where readig was clearly a secondary priority, if that gives you any idea). You could even read one section and then come back a few weeks later.

  3. Just finished Dorian Gray and didnt care for it at all… and didnt really care for Catcher in the Rye either… but everyone should absolutely read The Book Thief by Markus Zusak – one of the best books Ive ever read (and Im on #32 for this year so far)

    • Seconded. The Book Thief is amazing!
      (As a product of private Jewish elementary and middle school, I have read approximately every book about the Holocaust ever. And this is my favorite.)

      • YA novels are actually often a GREAT choice for ‘beach reads’. I adore Robin McKinley and have been re-reading her novels lately, so she comes to mind. Most of her novels are fantasy, though a few are re-tellings of classics (Beauty and the Beast, Robin Hood).

        • I still constantly reread ‘The Hero and the Crown’ and ‘The Blue Sword’!

          I’m not a vampire novel reader, but I also really enjoyed ‘Sunshine’. 🙂

  4. Interesting! I’ve read a few of those already and enjoyed them, especially ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’. I really need to read ‘Catcher in the Rye’ again because I last read it in high school.

    Right now I’m about to read ‘The Dharma Bums’ by Kerouac. I’ve only read ‘On the Road’ and I’m both an English teacher and a wanderer, so it’s almost a crime I haven’t read more Kerouac!

  5. George Orwell’s Animal Farm is another shorter classic that absolutely rocks.

    Penguin Popular Classics (with the green covers) or Penguin Books (orange and white covers) are always great beach (or commuting by public transport) reads, they’re so slim and compact you can pop them in a tote bag or handbag and if your local bookstore’s having a sale on them (5 for the price of 3, yes!) they’re like literary pick ‘n’ mix, you can just grab all those random books you’ve meaning to get to for the price of one hardcover.

  6. I think Dracula is better than Frankenstein… but that’s just me!

    On the scifi end, H. G. Wells’ novellas are all short and entertaining!

    Also: Sherlock Holmes are short stories!

  7. Oh, I love this post! I study poetry all year, but summer is my time to catch up on fiction. Might I add that contemporary short story collections are excellent for beach days and summer getaways? I think the readers here might like Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls (Alissa Nutting), I Am a Magical Teenage Princess (Luke Geddes), and The Great Frustration (Seth Fried) – might be harder to find in your library, but they’re all buyable online. If you dig more serious work, you can’t go wrong with Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri – she’s brilliant.

  8. Thank you for these suggestions! I am often intimidated by giant novels and have to read about 15% of a book in one sitting to get into it, so these are perfect for me to get some culture and enjoyment from reading. 🙂

  9. If you’re looking to read these for free (Right. Now.) some of the titles are available for free legal download at The Gutenberg Project http://www.gutenberg.org/ . Your local library may have them “always available” as an e-book, too.

    I am pretty sure between myself and my husband we own most of these, but I personally have only read “Things Fall Apart”. I think I will be reading some of these soon!

    And related to a comment above, I second Shirley Jackson – she also wrote The Lottery, another quick read.

    • I’ve started frequenting my local library again after getting an e-reader (a sad admission, but my local library has way more activities for kids and seniors than 20-somethings). Definitely a good resource for summer reading! They get packages from several publishers and a number of the classics are always available.

  10. Slaughterhouse Five is great and sooooooo different from the image the title conjures up. Same with Catcher in the Rye; from the titles I used to think they were both horror. 😛

    Slaughterhouse Five has aliens in it, people! Yes, aliens. As in, from outer space. I read it for a class called “Satire in Literature and Film” and it was my favorite book that we read that semester.

  11. Husband is chiming in with Animal Farm and Farenheit 451. I’d also say Brave New World – I’m not sure about the page count but it’s a quick read. Oh, and Of Mice and Men and Lord of the Flies could be on there too.

  12. It’s not quite your classic beach holiday, but I’m off to Whitby next weekend so I should probably stick Dracula on my tablet and read that when I’m in the area. Thanks for the prompt!

  13. The great thing about a lot of classics is if you have an e reader they are free downloads. Not always but many of the older expired copyright books have been uploaded for free by volunteers so you can expand your reading and book collection without spending any money. Have I mentioned how much I love my Kindle. In my purse I can carry hundreds of books.

Join the Conversation