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January 11, 2002

Seen on the cover of a one-cassette audiobook: “A+ Audio: Because books are long and life is short.”

If they were selling the merits of listening to recordings of short works, I would applaud it. But the audiobook is “A study guide to Charles Dicken’s Great Expectations.” The publisher is really selling it as a substitute for the real thing rather than just a useful guide.

I objected … to myself, of course. The publisher knows that the bulk of its market will be harried students who want merely to pass tests. Thus, “books are long.”

Long books are long. Unabridged audiobooks are usually long. Time to read, or listen, is at a premium in our modern lives. What happened to the predicted increase in leisure time that should have happened by now? Perhaps we have it but now have too much to do with it.

The “Penguin Lives” series of short biographies was inspired by the perceived market for short works. One can find plenty of thin books by scanning the shelves of a library or book shop. But browsing requires patience and remove. If you’re already pressed by time, you want something good right now.

I made a quick walk through the shelves just to see what popped out. These are all books under 200 pages, well-written or otherwise noteworthy.

“Longitude” by Dava Sobol is about John Harrison who in the 18th century solved the intractable problem of measuring longitude. “The Emperor” by reknowned Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski tells of his time in the Ethiopia of ruler Haile Selassie.

I saw three about the American West: “Across the wire: life and hard times on the Mexican border” by Luis Alberto Urrea; “Who owns the West?” by William Kittredge; and “Land of little rain” by Mary Austin (1903).

“Three uses of the knife” by David Mamet discusses the magic of the play. “There’s no toilet paper on the road less traveled” is a collection subtitled “best of travel humor and misadventure.” Another short travel book: “Falling off the map” by Pico Iyer.

I moved over to fiction and immediately saw the slim volumes of short stories by Kevin Canty holding up his large novel. Kent Haruf’s “Where you once belonged” is also under 200 pages, as is “The crying of Lot 49” by Thomas Pynchon. And “Kitchen” by Banana Yoshimoto, one of my favorite names.

Westerns are often under 200 pages, as are paperback romances. Much has been made of the disappearance of magazine fiction, and yet magazines persist in publishing short stories to this day.

The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, and The New Yorker all still publish fiction in addition to the lengthy, in-depth essays they are known for. As well, they publish poetry.

Reading poetry is actually good for you in ways you may not have expected. The more children read of it, the better. Poetry reading — and performing — improves reading fluency, and there is a strong correlation between fluency and being a happy, lifelong reader.

Slow reading can lead to frustration. Even if someone can read with good comprehension, if the effort is laborious, he or she will likely avoid reading. And with reading, as with many things, practice makes perfect.

I just remembered another little gem, 131 pages: “The old man who read love stories” by Luis Sepulveda. You don’t have to be a speed reader to read a good book.


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