THE ECONOMIST: Six non-fiction books you can read in a day

The Economist
If you’ve committed to reading more books but don’t have enough time on your hands, you might want to consider some shorter works.
If you’ve committed to reading more books but don’t have enough time on your hands, you might want to consider some shorter works. Credit: lev dolgachov/Syda Productions - stock.adobe.com

The short book, long underestimated, has a lot going for it. To start with the prosaic: if you want to get through more volumes, short is shrewd. Slender books can be slipped into a bag or coat pocket and plucked out again in an idle moment, so you’ll be more likely to finish them.

For adventurous readers, the format allows for casual experimentation with new styles, topics and authors. For indecisive ones it can make a bookshop’s universe of possibilities feel less daunting: just scour the shelves for slim spines.

Most of all, there is a rare satisfaction in reaching the final pages of a book while still holding the full sweep of its story in your mind.

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Taut prose is intense and immersive, like a distilled fragrance. These books offer that, too. They must; they don’t have long to make their point. In an era of many distractions, that is a great virtue.

These six non-fiction books include memoirs, journalism, essays and pictorial essays. They take you into the bedroom of a grieving husband in imperial China; into the courtroom where a sensational murder trial split New York’s Bukharan Jewish community in the late 2000s; and, classically, into a room of one’s own. In short, they get plenty done in just 150 pages.

Six Records of a Floating Life. By Shen Fu. Translated by Leonard Pratt and Chiang Su-Hui. Penguin Classics; 144 pages

A meditation on extraordinary love and an ordinary life, this memoir was written at the beginning of the 19th century in Qing-dynasty China by a widowed scholar. Despite the lapse of time, Shen Fu’s joys and sorrows feel comfortingly familiar. He was a civil servant who, though highly educated for his time, did not manage to rise up the ranks. He quarrelled with his parents, played drinking games and went on picnics. He also married the love of his life (they had known each other since they were 13 years old) and, as Shen’s memoir reveals, he treated Chen Yun like an equal, admiring her practicality and sparring with her in ad lib poetry competitions. The book has long been cherished in China as a true account of deep love. For modern readers the records may hold some surprises, too. Shen loved flower arranging. And although he and Yun adored each other, she matter-of-factly sought out a concubine for him—with whom, the text implies, she also had sex (lesbian relationships were not especially frowned upon at the time). The translators’ judicious footnotes make the reading all the more pleasurable.

Oranges. By John McPhee. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 149 pages

Are there 150 sparkling pages to be written about the everyday orange? John McPhee proves there are. “Oranges”, which evolved from an essay published in the New Yorker in 1966, established a new form of journalism: one that marries whimsy with forensic explanatory reporting. Mr McPhee examines the rise of frozen orange juice concentrate after the Second World War — already then a $700m industry and “the boomiest boom since the Brazilian rubber boom”. He interviews Florida’s orange barons, pickers, packers and pomologists. His essay flows from the fantastic sex life of oranges to the Sanskrit origins of the word (naranga) to oranges’ role in the Norman invasion of Sicily. It is sweet to read about Botticelli and Degrees Brix (the standard measure of sugar) in a single sitting. This is also dissection at its sharpest, and eating an orange will never be the same again.

A Room of One’s Own. By Virginia Woolf. Mariner; 128 pages; $16.99. Penguin Modern Classics

Among the most influential essays of the 20th century, “A Room of One’s Own” was based on a lecture that Virginia Woolf gave at Newnham College and Girton College, the first two for women at Cambridge University. Woolf lands her best-known line by the second page: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” That sends her down new routes of inquiry. As she relays the train of thought she has while walking around “Oxbridge” (a barely fictitious composite) and London, her wry humour develops a fierceness that builds to anger. “Why are women poor?” she asks. “What effect has poverty on fiction?” And “What conditions are necessary for the creation of works of art?” She summons the work of women over the centuries, from Aphra Behn to the Brontë sisters, to find the answers. The lot of women in Britain has improved dramatically in the century since Woolf wrote her essay. Yet it still feels like essential reading, in particular as a manifesto on the right to form one’s own opinion and express it.

Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial. By Janet Malcolm. Yale University Press; 155 pages

If the aim of journalistic inquiry is to provide answers, Janet Malcolm shows, with devastating rigour, that observation can be enough. “Iphigenia in Forest Hills” tells the story of a murder trial in New York in 2009. Mazoltuv Borukhova, a 35-year-old doctor, is accused of paying an acquaintance to kill her husband. Malcolm lays out the facts of the case, then raises the question at the heart of most true-crime stories: “She couldn’t have done it, and she must have done it.” Yet the title, a reference to the Greek myth of Iphigenia, sacrificed daughter of Agamemnon, says it all. This too is a tragedy; its end certain. Malcolm does not offer suspense. Instead, from many small procedural details at the Queens Supreme Court she coaxes bigger, more unsettling questions. Such as, is bias inevitable? “Borukhova’s otherness was her defining characteristic,” notes Malcolm. Observe, her text urges, how decisive the opinion of an expert witness can be. Notice the seduction of certainty—how courtrooms revel in it. See what small tyrannies the judge permits himself. Unshowily, Malcolm makes her point: a trial is perhaps nothing more than “a contest between competing narratives”.

Ways of Seeing. By John Berger. Penguin Modern Classics; 155 pages

Adapted from a four-part BBC television series of the same name that aired in 1972, John Berger’s book will probably change how you think about art. Four essays consider the reproduction of art; the female form and the male gaze; how ownership influences art; and publicity and the illusion of authority. These are delightfully complemented by three wordless pictorial essays, bold visual arguments for Berger’s incantatory opening—which purposely appears right on the cover of this edition—that “seeing comes before words”. He shows how the meaning of art is always influenced by how and where it is viewed. Berger’s book is naturally a product of its time, too: Marxist, radical and preoccupied with the ruling class. But it made complex ideas about a closed world accessible and engaging. Its influence is lasting: read the review we wrote for its 50th anniversary.

A Man’s Place. By Annie Ernaux. Translated by Tanya Leslie. Seven Stories Press; 96 pages

Annie Ernaux made her mark with autobiographical fiction in which, as we wrote when she received the Nobel prize in literature in 2022, she remakes “the private and the ordinary into something profound”. But to write a radically short biography of her father the French author had to strip away all pretence; she abandoned a first attempt at a novel with “feelings of disgust”. “If I wish to tell the story of a life governed by necessity,” she writes, “I have no right to adopt an artistic approach.” The result is a spare, starkly beautiful memoir. Its studied restraint, almost ethnographic, is the work of a daughter at pains to do justice to the life of a father whom she felt she could no longer truly know: “Although it had something to do with class, it was different, indefinable. Like fractured love.” Like many others of his era, he first laboured on a farm, then entered a factory and finally worked for himself, as a shopkeeper in rural Normandy. Ms Ernaux strove, she writes, to convey both his happiness and “the humiliating limitations” of his class. It is the story of a generation, but also firmly her father’s own.

Try also

Ms Ernaux wrote a short biography of her mother, “A Woman’s Story”. It is as accomplished as that about her father, and secured her reputation with French readers. If you enjoyed Janet Malcolm’s “Iphigenia in Forest Hills”, try “Still Pictures”, a short book published posthumously that is also perhaps her most personal. We reviewed it last year here. New to John McPhee’s writing? He has written more than 30 books. After “Oranges”, why not try his most recent, “Tabula Rasa”—it comes in at under 200 pages. We offered our appraisal here.

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