Springtime can make even the most devoted of readers a little bit antsy. After all, there are flowers to smell, puddles to jump in, fresh love to kindle. You still want to have a novel in your pocket — just maybe one that doesn’t require quite so epic an attention span. Never fear: after the jump, you will find 50 incredible novels under 200 pages (editions vary, of course, so there’s a little leeway) that are suitable for this or any season. For simplicity’s sake, the list makes no distinction between novel and novella, excludes children’s books, and only allows one novel per author. Read on to find a book to divert your springtime attentions, and since there are way more than 50 incredible short novels out there in the world, add any favorites missing here in the comments.
Train Dreams, Denis Johnson
Johnson’s novella is a shimmering masterpiece that takes you from the railroad to the woods of Prohibition-era Idaho with a sort of manic grace. His narrator loses everything but finds something else, something not-quite, in the woods. And it’s the pervasive not-quiteness of this novella that makes it so powerful, so shifting, so freaking good. Read it.
Speedboat, Renata Adler
Last year may have been The Year Of Renata Adler, but here’s the thing: every year should pretty much be the year of Renata Adler. This novel is a semi-plotless investigation of contemporary life, both actual and intellectual, in which every sentence gleams and winks and lifts boulders. It is vital and dazzling and will never, never go out of style.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson
Do you dare approach the Blackwood mansion? How about Merricat Blackwood, one of the oddest and most wonderful characters to ever occupy a house of any kind? You should, because this macabre, hilarious little book, with its family of possible poisoners and definite outcasts is as beautiful as it is weird.
We the Animals, Justin Torres
This delectable coming-of-age novel is chaotic and ferocious and flat-out overflowing with love, fear, gorgeous language, and more, more, more. It will set your heart to racing.
Autobiography of Red, Anne Carson
Carson’s legendary novel in verse takes the monster’s view — of the classic myth of Herakles and Geryon, of love, and of growing up in the modern world. The woman is a visionary, and this slim volume packs in more beauty than many a tome.
The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
Imagine that — one of the greatest Great American Novels of all time, and it can be read in an afternoon. Or during a wild party, perhaps.
Pnin, Vladimir Nabokov
Nabokov’s merry little story of this pathetic, clueless, delightful Russian émigré will never leave you. Neither will his writing, all mind-bendingly acrobatic and golden and wry.
Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino
This is the book that launched a thousand art projects, and for good reason: each imaginary city, described by Marco Polo to Kublai Khan, is a mini revelation, a marvelous bauble. But the book adds up to more than the sum of its cities. You’ll just have to read to find out.
Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
A classic. Also the very first science fiction novel, with the added bonus of the fact that you can read it with lots of time left over to stay up all night.
The Orange Eats Creeps, Grace Krilanovich
Krilanovich’s prose comes out in a shriek, a stammer, a trippy exhale, so exhilarating that its 208 (OK, yes, cheating) pages will seem a blur. A teenage hobo vampire junkie blur.
The Mezzanine, Nicholson Baker
This book is mostly about a guy who goes out to buy shoelaces and lunch and then comes back to his office via escalator. But it is, I swear, so much more. Minute observations about cultural mainstays! Long discussions of the politics and possible outcomes of whistling in the bathroom! Some of the best figurative language you’ll read! Go for it, it’s only out to lunch for an hour.
Franny and Zooey, J.D. Salinger
Welp, my copy of this is 201 pages, but it’s getting counted anyway, because: Franny and Zooey. Especially recommended for you if you are either a teenager or a Glass family acolyte.
Dept. of Speculation, Jenny Offill
The book of the moment, whip-smart, defying description, will bring your walls down around you.
Nightwood, Djuna Barnes
A short read, but not a light one. This novel, famous for being one of the earliest to explicitly portray homosexuality, is dense and powerful, with more ache and astonishment than novels thrice its size.
The Member of the Wedding, Carson McCullers
A gorgeous, poetic coming-of-age story that questions race, gender, and societal pressures of all kinds.
Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World, Donald Antrim
A surrealist masterpiece that’s oft overlooked. Terrifying, bonkers, hilarious, and filled with gorgeous language and real insight about real humans, it will knock you topsy-turvy.
The Hound of the Baskervilles, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Or any of the Sherlock Holmes novels — most are short. This one’s a classic and a particular favorite.
Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf
Possibly the best novel about a party ever written.
Leaving the Atocha Station, Ben Lerner
This is one of those books that you can’t really describe to anyone — because “guy studying abroad has revelation or maybe not” just sounds so bad. But Lerner captures the feeling of being a stranger in a foreign country better than anyone in recent memory, and the book is a real delight. Have faith.
The Stranger, Albert Camus
The beloved existentialist classic.
The Lover, Marguerite Duras
This novel, a beautiful, strange patternwork story of a young French girl’s affair with an older man in Saigon, simply smolders.
Sula, Toni Morrison
An incredible story of friendship from one of the greatest writers of our time.
The Crying of Lot 49, Thomas Pynchon
The Crying of Lot 49 isn’t one of Pynchon’s favorites, but hey, what does he know? Read it for its standing in the postmodern canon, its allusions, and that special, strange language only Pynchon can stir up.
Heart of a Dog, Mikhail Bulgakov
You may not think you want to read a Communist satire about a stray dog who gets Frankenstein-ed into being a man, but — no, never mind, who wouldn’t want to read that?
The King, Donald Barthelme
In this sly retelling of Le Morte D’Arthur, Barthelme transplants the Knights of the Round Table into WWII. Barthelme is a master of the short form, and like most of his writing, this book is absurd, delicious, and absurdly delicious.
Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck
You can’t go awry with this classic. (See what I did there?)
Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, Lorrie Moore
The acerbic story of a teenage friendship with all the wry humor and deftly observed life you expect from Lorrie Moore.
Annihilation, Jeff VanderMeer
Another recent stunner, VanderMeer’s bizarre and thoroughly engaging mystery hauls you, alongside the Psychologist, the Surveyor, the Anthropologist, and the Biologist, through the unknown Area X, where strangeness abounds. Only the first volume of The Southern Reach Trilogy, so get to reading.
Time’s Arrow, Martin Amis
The life of an ex-Nazi doctor told in reverse. One of Amis’ very best books of any length.
The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes
How to Get Into the Twin Palms, Karolina Waclawiak
This wacky little novel stars a Polish girl living in LA who wants nothing more than to make it past the door of the Russian nightclub across the street from her apartment. Weird and vital.
Ghosts, César Aira
In this wondrous little book, ghosts — that is, a small group of naked, plaster dust-covered dead dudes — haunt a half-finished luxury apartment building in Buenos Aires, and make pacts and have dinners with the stepdaughter of the building’s night watchman. It’s subtler, and stranger, than it sounds.
Animal Farm, George Orwell
If you haven’t read Orwell’s satirical classic, what are you waiting for? At 140-odd pages, it’ll take the space of an afternoon to get caught up with a major cultural icon.
The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway
Possibly the shortest novel ever to win a Pulitzer. Also, the Nobel committee called it out when awarding the prize to Papa. Come on, you already know it’s good.
The Optimist’s Daughter, Eudora Welty
Here’s another (slightly longer) Pulitzer Prize winner, about a young woman dealing with the decline and death of her father.
The Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka
Kafka’s über-famous novella is the dark, itchy seed from which so much good writing has been made. It is also fantastic, obviously.
Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
Though short, Heart of Darkness is one of the densest, darkest books you’ll wade through. Also it’s completely worth it for what it does to your head. The horror! The horror!
The Ghost Writer, Philip Roth
The very first Nathan Zuckerman novel, and a true delight.
Hilarious 18th-century French satire that takes a stab at just about everything, from religion to war to romance novels to politics to philosophy to optimism. Wildly influential and wildly fun to read.
Billy Budd, Herman Melville
Billy Budd has a rap for being the book teachers assign when they don’t have time to teach Moby-Dick and, well, no one’s going to really refute that. But it’s great fun and deep stuff on its own account, a literary masterpiece, if also Melville’s second-place work.
Ethan Frome, Edith Wharton
One of Wharton’s lesser-read works, but still: Wharton. So.
Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
You’ll totally have time to read this (classic, wonderful, outrageous) novel before they burn it.
Colette could write a love affair like nobody’s business. This is one of her very best.
The Time Machine, H.G. Wells
A literary and sci-fi classic in a tiny, easily digestible little capsule. The future is here.
The Buddha in the Attic, Julie Otsuka
A mesmerizing account of the women brought from Japan to California as “picture brides,” their chorus of voices more powerful and orchestral than a book this short has any right to pull off.
The Magic Toyshop, Angela Carter
Carter is the queen of sexy, strange fairy tales, and this slim novel is one of her finest: a shimmering knockout that will set your head a-spinning.
House Made of Dawn, N. Scott Momaday
A Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a Native American boy caught between two worlds. Powerful stuff, and beautifully written.
The Body Artist, Don DeLillo
This gorgeous, ambiguous novel might be the strangest ghost story you’ll ever read. Just goes to show that DeLillo can do it all.
Bonjour Tristesse, Francoise Sagan
The classic French novel of teenage sexual liberation — once a scandal, now just a delightful read.
Notes From Underground, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The narrator of this book just might be the greatest misanthrope of all time. Also, a good way to get some Dostoyevsky under your belt if you don’t have time for one of the doorstops.