Say what you will about length and literary genius, but there’s something to be said for brevity when it comes to literature. Now, we’re not saying you shouldn’t get out there and take a crack at works like Infinite Jest (David Foster Wallace) or Ulysses (James Joyce); all we’re saying is that it’s best not to equate length and artistic merit, as there’s plenty of short novels out there that manage to pack an entire text’s worth of knowledge into a small space. As luck would have it, we happen to have ten of those novels selected and ranked for your pleasure, so as to make sure all our readers know what to pick up the next time they want to read a literary classic in a single day. With that in mind, here’s 10 classic novels you can read in a single day.
10. The Prince (Niccolo Machiavelli)
The man whose political theory inspired the adjective “Machiavellian” (to be cunning or duplicitous), Niccolo Machiavelli wasn’t the most well-liked man on the planet when he published The Prince in 1513. Exiled from his position in the Italian government, Machiavelli was so irate at his removal from power that he went on to write the definitive text on power; how to gain it, how to keep it, and best of all how to wield it. A cunning example of political ideology that suggests it is most definitely better to be feared than loved, The Prince remains one of the most studied philosophical texts in the Western canon, and one that is inescapable in university classrooms around the country.
9. Breakfast at Tiffany’s (Truman Capote)
While he’s better known for his true crime thriller In Cold Blood, it’s often forgotten that Truman Capote also penned the novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which follows a young and naive narrator as he befriends a wealthy and engaging New York socialite, Holly Golightly . Capote, a master of his craft and one of the best pure writers of his or any generation, penned this classic in 1958, and it was so well received that notorious author and critic Norman Mailer said he “wouldn’t have changed two words in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” While the novella is best known as the inspiration for the Audrey Hepburn film of the same name, it remains one of the better novellas that can be read in a single day (or in this case, just an afternoon).
8. The Crying of Lot 49 (Thomas Pynchon)
Thomas Pynchon, the preeminent writer in the postmodern tradition, is still alive and writing great works to this day; however, we’re going to talk a bit about Pynchon’s first novel, The Crying of Lot 49, and its effect on contemporary literature. An extremely short but dense read, The Crying of Lot 49 is an absurd tale that follows Oedipa Maas on her quest to execute the will of the late Pierce Inverarity, her former lover. Along the way, Oeidipa stumbles upon a strange conspiracy (or does she?!) involving duelling factions of mail delivery services, one that’s been going on for hundreds of years with dozens of causalities being covered up. An excellent read that gave birth to the postmodern novel (or at the very least, contributed heavily to its design and literary style), The Crying of Lot 49 is one of the shortest (and best) novels on this list.
7. The Quiet American (Graham Greene)
A short read by one of England’s most underrated novelists, The Quiet American by Graham Greene is also one of the most vitriolic anti-war books that’s ever been published. First published in 1955, the novel is about a young journalist and war correspondent following the war in Vietnam, who has become cynical in his time abroad. While travelling in Vietnam, he meets a young CIA agent named Alden Pyle (the “quiet American” from the novel’s title), and the two engage routinely in conversations on subjects as varied as war, nation and the communist vs. capitalist debate. The Quiet American, which was more popular with British audiences than American ones (most likely due to the novel’s somewhat unflattering portrayal of American imperial ideology), has been twice adapted into films and still exists as an excellent read and one not to be missed by fans of the espionage genre.
6. Flowers for Algernon (Daniel Keyes)
You’ve no doubt been exposed to the basic plot of Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon before, as it’s been parodied on multiple instances (most recently on the excellent It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia). The story, which follows a developmentally challenged man after he’s given surgery to significantly increase his intelligence, takes its name from the laboratory mouse who acts as the original test subject for the intelligence raising surgery, named Algernon. The book, which was originally published as a short story and as a novella soon after, touches heavily on themes of disability, intelligence, and the importance of happiness rather than cleverness (as the human test subject gets smarter, his personal relationships begin to become weaker and weaker). A short read that remains one of the strongest entries into the science fiction genre, Flowers for Algernon is a great read for those looking for big questions that have few answers.
5. Animal Farm (George Orwell)
George Orwell, who has the distinction of being not only one of the greatest novelists of his era, but also of being one of the greatest essayists of his era (seriously, the dude was smart…check out some of his non-fiction work and get back to us when you’re really, really impressed), is best known for his incredibly popular novel Nineteen Eighty-Four; however, since that literary classic can’t be read in a day, we’re putting Animal Farm, Orwell’s allegorical novella about the Russian Revolution and the Stalinism that came after, at number five on our list. The text, which metaphorically tells the story of Stalin’s rise to power and the Soviet Union’s gradual shift towards fear and dictatorship, uses animals as the primary vehicle for its message. Taking place on a farm (hence, the title), Animal Farm exists as one of the strongest instances of allegory in the history of literature.
4. Heart of Darkness (Joseph Conrad)
We’ve spoken of our affection for Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness before, and that affection has not waned in light of recent readings of the novel (it only takes a few hours to work through, as it’s incredibly short). An oft-misunderstood novel that indicts rather than celebrates the racism and prejudice of its characters, Heart of Darkness no doubt did damage to the world’s understanding of Africa and its history; however, it also exists as one of the most damning pieces of evidence against British colonialism, and its themes of savagery, humanity and greed are often ascribed to the white characters in the novel rather than the black ones. A staple of English undergraduate classrooms worldwide, Heart of Darkness is a master class in how to write a short novel.
3. The Metamorphosis (Franz Kafka)
How’s this for a logline: The Metamorphosis is the story of a travelling salesman who one day wakes up to find himself transformed into a large, insect-like monster. Barely a novel in length (it’s really more of a novella, which actually makes it perfect for a list like this), The Metamorphosis is considered one of the seminal texts of the 20th century. Since its publication in 1915, the book’s popularity and influence have grown in both the popular consciousness and in academia, where its often studied in undergraduate and graduate English programs. A favorite of renowned novelist Vladimir Nabokov (of Lolita fame, who often taught The Metamorphosis in his classes at Cornell University), The Metamorphosis is a must-read for anyone who enjoys literature at all, and most definitely for anyone who enjoys literature on the shorter side.
2. The Old Man and the Sea (Ernest Hemingway)
Love him or hate him, it’s hard to deny the influence Ernest Hemingway has had on the trajectory of contemporary literature. The foremost pioneer of the minimalist writing style that was all the rage in some sects of postmodern American literature (Hemingway himself was a Modernist, although he was a poor one at best, rarely abiding by the literary techniques prominent during the period), Hemingway published many classic novels, but none as taut, lean and mean as The Old Man and the Sea, the 1954 text for which Hemingway would win the Nobel Prize. It’s got everything a classic Hemingway novel needs; it’s brief, it’s emotive, it’s one man vs. the world. Following a master fisherman as he battles an epic marlin and some seedy sharks with their eyes on his catch, rumor has it The Old Man and the Sea was inspired by Hemingway’s time in Cuba, where he spent a good chunk of his life.
1. The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald)
We’ve put The Great Gatsby at the top of many of these lists, and trust us when we say it bugs us too. The thing about it is, it’s just so damned good. We’re inclined to think that the novel’s brevity plays heavily into that excellence, as The Great Gatsby is too short to ever drag, and just long enough for the master F. Scott Fitzgerald to engage readers in his tragic depiction of the Roaring Twenties. The Great Gatsby, which was considered a commercial failure during its initial printing and did not receive critical and commercial acclaim until its re-release some two decades after its inaugural pressing in 1925, can be read in an afternoon with diligence and a half-day if you’re being lazy. Either way, it remains a spectacular read and one of the finest things you could ever hope to spend a day doing. We’d recommend sitting down with a copy, preferably outside with a refreshing beverage, and investing in some quality literature.