Recently I was asked to deliver a session to Heads of English about encouraging independence in A level students. The session went well. I mean I enjoyed it, and that's got to be a sort-of good sign, right?
We covered lots, but one short section has changed me more than I thought it might. It was about reading. I've been thinking a lot about how hard it is to get post-16 students reading literature, particularly with the aggressive competition from visual media. (In a recent podcast interview, Linwood Barclay describes how he met a group of his fellow-writers at a convention and was horrified to realise, halfway through an enjoyable catch-up conversation, that they were all swapping and sharing TV and movie recommendations rather than books. And these are guys and gals who make their living writing and reading. So it's not just kids...)
Sometimes it can be the sheer length of a book, and the time-commitment it requires, that puts us off picking up. So I decided to assemble a killer list of super-short novels. Next time I'm asked at a school event how to encourage more reading, or a parent waits behind after a session to ask how they can get their kids into books again, I'll be using this list. Maybe it'll be helpful for you too. The number of pages are in brackets. Here's part one:
Fourteen Novellas you can Read in a Long Weekend
The Yellow Wallpaper – Charlotte Perkins Gilman (35)
Metamorphosis – Franz Kafka (44)
Breakfast at Tiffany’s – Truman Capote (84)
Candide – Voltaire (84)
The Pearl – John Steinbeck (96)
The House on Mango Street – Sandra Cisneros (103)
Animal Farm – George Orwell (112)
A Room with a View – EM Forster (119)
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – Lewis Carrol (126)
The Old Man and the Sea – Ernest Hemmingway (127)
The Invisible Man – HG Wells (129)
The Turn of the Screw – Henry James (131)
Orlando – Virginia Woolf (134)
The Call of the Wild – Jack London (144)
In the spirit of thorough and professional presentation - that's me all over, folks - I decided to read four from the list before I ran the session. It took me two days of casual, no-pressure on-and-off reading to get them done. I read The Yellow Wallpaper (a novella about the very act of reading and making meaning so it's peak-appropriate for this list...) The Pearl (a re-read, but I'd very little recollection of it), The House on Mango Street (my first time with this. Mood-and-mind-alteringly good; stunning coming-of-age stories) and The Old Man and the Sea ( a re-read.)
It was a wonderful experience. The vivid prose read quickly and easily. The themes were sharp and clear. The characters, voices and worlds rich and varied. As an introduction to literature, its purpose and power, you could do much worse. Part two of the list to come next time. If you've got a reluctant reader in your house, or a child embarking on a literature course, get a hold of some of these.
You could even read along yourself.