Alexander Larman

Short books to read on the commute

Short books to read on the commute
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As lockdown shows early signs of (finally) coming to an end, there is the likelihood that, once again, early morning trains will be full of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed commuters, keen to leave their ‘home offices’ in favour of being around people who they are neither married to nor responsible for. And this means, one hopes, that they will be choosing appropriate books for the hour or so’s journey into work. While there is a time and place for a 600-page behemoth, there is also something deeply rewarding (and, let us be quite frank, relieving) about a shorter title; not only is it considerably easier to fit inside a briefcase, handbag or satchel, but many great writers produced some of their finest work in less than 200 pages. Here are seven of our favourites, from classic novels to intensely moving memoirs.

The Loved One, Evelyn Waugh

Few of Evelyn Waugh’s brilliant satirical novels are especially long, but his fantasia on Hollywood and ‘the American way of death’ comes in at a snappy 160 pages. Published after Brideshead Revisited, it is everything that that (admittedly seminal) book is not: irreverent, blackly comic and jaw-droppingly scabrous. It tells the story of failed poet Dennis Barlow and his excursions into the Whispering Glades Memorial Park, an upmarket Californian mortuary, where death is viewed less as an end and more as a particularly bizarre beginning. It features all of the rich characterisation and distinctly un-PC one-liners that Waugh is associated with, and is probably the last of his fleet-footed satires. Thereafter, his work became graver and more pointed, arguably to its detriment.

High Windows, Philip Larkin

Everyone should read at least one volume of poetry a year, and Philip Larkin, although he is permanently teetering on the verge of cancellation, remains one of the most readable and vivid English-language poets who has ever lived. Arguably The Whitsun Weddings is his finest collection, but many of his best and most memorable works can be found in his last published selection, including the iconic ‘This Be The Verse’ and the titular poem. Some show Larkin at his most satirical, such as the biting ‘Posterity’ and ‘Homage to a Government’, but there is also a lyricism, as in ‘The Trees’ and a vivid autobiographical element (‘Vers de Société) that mean that this volume will make you laugh, cry and reflect on your mortality all at once. Not bad if you happen to be on the 8.02 to Paddington.

But You Did Not Come Back, Marceline Loridan-Ivens

In April 1944, the 15-year old Marceline Loridan-Ivens was sent to Auschwitz, along with her father. She survived, but he did not. This hugely moving and deeply distressing memoir tells the story of what happened when she entered hell, and revolves around intense recollections of her final dealings with her father, who managed to send her a ‘stained little scrap’ of paper with a note on it, as well as giving her an apple and an onion to eat. There have been countless books written about the Holocaust, many of which are almost unbearably sad and affecting, but Loridan-Ivens’ short, contained account of her experiences is all the more powerful for its juxtaposition of the horrors she faced with its testament to an undying, uncompromising love for one’s family, amidst everything.

Grief Is The Thing With Feathers, Max Porter

The bookseller and editor Max Porter had one of the most unlikely crossover hits with his debut novel, which combines a meditation on Ted Hughes’ poetry collection Crow with an account of a family suffering traumatic grief. Porter won several major literary awards for his inimitable book, which is extremely short (a mere 128 pages) and yet manages to say profound things about loss, literature and life in its spare, often blackly amusing way. There is something profoundly uplifting about coming across a book as unusual and iconoclastic as this – the sort of thing that would be looked at with bewilderment by many commercially-driven editors on the grounds that it refuses to conform to any pattern – and watching it become an enormous success. It was even adapted for the stage, with Cillian Murphy.

The Uncommon Reader, Alan Bennett

As the Royal Family continue to dominate the news headlines this year, it is always worth turning back to Alan Bennett, who wrote one of the more memorable dramatic accounts of the Queen in his play A Question of Attribution. In 2007, he returned to her in his novella The Uncommon Reader, which revolves around a simple but delicious conceit: what if Elizabeth II, for so long denied the everyday pleasures of sitting down with a good book, should suddenly be exposed to a mobile library, and became first a voracious reader and secondly inspired by many of the titles that she came across? As ever with Bennett, the jokes are pointed and witty, the allusions ceaselessly erudite, and this is one of the most purely entertaining quick reads one can undertake on public transport, or anywhere else for that matter.

The Sense Of An Ending, Julian Barnes

There was a running joke in literary circles for years (if ‘joke’ is the mot juste) that Julian Barnes was forever the bridesmaid and never the bride when it came to the Booker Prize. He was nominated in 1984, 1998 and 2005 for Flaubert’s Parrot, England, England and Arthur and George, and was unsuccessful on every occasion, which meant that his eventual victory in 2011 for his brief, perfectly formed novel The Sense of an Ending was all the more welcome – and, given that it’s only 163 pages long, its very existence is an implicit rebuke to anyone who believes that award-winning novels have to be great baggy monsters. In its meditation on ageing, memory and the paths that we take in our lives, Barnes articulates universal truths beautifully. No wonder that the Booker chair Stella Rimington called it ‘a book that spoke to humankind in the 21st century’.

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

It is commonly known that The Great Gatsby, for many the great American novel, was not especially popular on its first publication, and that when Scott Fitzgerald died in 1940, he believed that it, and he, had been a failure. Had he lived a couple of decades longer, he would have seen his slim, brilliant book reassessed by a world weary of both war and ephemerality. Its characters – Jay Gatsby, Daisy Buchanan, even Jordan Baker – are iconic, and Scott Fitzgerald’s writing, which combines elegance with brutal violence, is as seductive and musical as it ever was. And there can be no single finer or more evocative image in 20th century literature than that of Gatsby standing, alone, staring over at the green light across the bay that symbolises Daisy and all that he can never have, for all of his newfound wealth and status.