Delve into these short classic books that you actually have time to read.
How many times has someone told you that you must read the classics? The thought of sitting down and working through all 700 pages of James Joyce’s Ulysses is daunting, but what if we told you there was a much easier and quicker way to get into classic literature?
“A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.”Mark Twain
We’ve compiled a list of the best short classic books to help you broaden your literary knowledge in no time. These 20 volumes are all under 250 pages, and we’ve ordered them from shortest to longest. Each of these quick classic reads is a masterful work of literature, and this list will not only help you appear well-read without spending weeks with your nose in Moby-Dick, but it will also ensure you ace the literature sections in pub quizzes.
Starting with the quickest reads, here are our top 20 short classic books to help you read more in 2023:
1. The Yellow Wallpaper (30 pages)
Firstly, for those who prefer to read darker tales, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s semi-autobiographical short story is a significant yet quick read. In under 50 pages, The Yellow Wallpaper explores the psychological breakdown of a young woman suffering from postpartum psychosis.
First published in 1892, this early feminist text reveals the struggles of the unnamed woman when she is isolated in a small boxroom with just the loathsome yellow wallpaper to occupy her mind. Secretly, she records her slow turn to insanity through a string of unsettling diary entries.
This chilling volume is an important piece of American literature, and it’s short enough to read on your bus journey home.
2. The Vampyre (54 pages)
For fans of horror and tales of the supernatural, John William Polidori’s classic gothic story, The Vampyre, is not to be missed. One of the first vampire books in English literature, Polidori’s remarkable work inspired famous volumes such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Still, with under 100 pages, this short book is quickly finished in one go.
Decadent, sinister, and macabre, The Vampyre details the mysterious arrival of society’s latest elite, Lord Ruthven. Aubrey is fascinated by the suave stranger, but when the pair are attacked while travelling in Europe, he watches as his new friend takes his final breath.
Lord Ruthven reappears in London alive and well just over a year later, and Aubrey realises that his friend might be concealing dark and horrifying truths behind his seductive fabrication.
3. The Call of the Wild (94 pages)
by Jack London
One of America’s defining literary novellas, The Call of the Wild was first published in 1903 and is almost impossible not to devour in one sitting.
In under 100 pages, Jack London introduces Buck, a pampered St. Bernard/Scotch shepherd dog cross, living happily in Santa Clara Valley, California. A beautiful tale of survival, heroism, and rebirth, this story begins when Buck is abducted, and his world is abruptly flipped upside down.
In short, this gripping socialist fable will captivate you and keep you on the edge of your seat as the lovable dog attempts to find a place to call home in the terrifying cruelty of the wild. Invest a few short hours reading this remarkable story and follow Buck’s dangerous adventures as he’s forced into the cold, harsh life of a sledge dog.
4. A Christmas Carol (104 pages)
When you think of short classic books, it’s highly unlikely that Charles Dickens comes to mind. Although the Victorian author is known for his long (often rambling) novels, he is also famous for his exceptional writing, vivid imagery, and brilliant perception. He’s able to effortlessly conjure colourful characters and intense settings, and this festive novella is no exception.
One of the best short classics of all time, A Christmas Carol is the perfect introduction to Dickens’ work. Journey through Christmases past, present, and future as Ebenezer Scrooge falls victim to terrifying hauntings and learns the season’s true meaning. The story is known universally, and the characters are evocative and beloved. Moreover, with only 104 pages this novel is easy to read within just a few hours.
5. Animal Farm (106 pages)
A book that is constantly referenced in pop culture and mentioned in conversation is George Orwell’s allegorical novella Animal Farm. Therefore, it’s the perfect short volume to start reading more classics.
One of our favourite short classic books, Animal Farm, is a sharp-edged portrayal of a group of mistreated animals who rebel and attempt to take over their farm from its cruel owner. However, as the animals brandish biting slogans and declare equality between all, their idealisms slowly merge into a new kind of enslavement as one of the pigs leads them into a dictatorship.
First published in 1945, George Orwell’s allegory for Stalin’s oppressive Russia features simple language with striking imagery. The slippery slope from revolt for equality to tyrannical totalitarianism is frightening, and at 106 pages, it’s short enough to read in one sitting.
6. Behind a Mask (126 pages)
Louisa May Alcott is known worldwide for her incredible children’s novel Little Women. For those who prefer crime fiction and gothic tales, her earlier work, Behind a Mask (1866), makes for an interesting read.
Short and sweet, Behind a Mask takes place in Victorian England and follows a sly master manipulator, Jean Muir. Working as the governess for the Coventry family, Jean is a deceptive and scheming woman determined to set right the many ways she believes people have wronged her. After successfully causing a stir amongst the men and women of high society, Jean decides to aim high and attempt to trick the Coventrys into giving her their family fortune. But with many secrets hidden behind her innocent facade, Jean only has a narrow window of time to carry out her plan successfully. Delve into Alcott’s early classic to discover the truth behind Jean’s mask.
7. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (136 pages)
Sometimes it’s much easier to read a classic book when you already know the story. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has been adapted many times for the stage and screen, and no fancy dress party is complete without at least one person wearing Judy Garland’s Dorothy costume from the 1939 musical film.
L. Frank Baum’s children’s fantasy novel is a quick and easy read that will whisk you away to an extraordinary land of Munchkins, Winged Monkeys, and magical shoes. Often referred to as America’s first fairy tale, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was originally published in 1900 and is one of the most well-known children’s stories of all time.
8. The Turn of the Screw (138 pages)
by Henry James
Short and fast-paced, The Turn of the Screw quickly becomes a spine-chilling exploration of human psychology as the book recounts its tragic tale through the perspective of a very unreliable narrator. With less than 200 pages, this haunting story will have you hooked as you try to uncover the mysteries of Bly Manor.
The hauntingly atmospheric tale was first published in 1898 and follows a young governess as she takes over the charge of two orphaned siblings. However, as she attempts to restore normality and joy into the children’s lives, she quickly comes to believe that something sinister is threatening her new charges. Is an intruder lurking within the house’s grounds or could a more malevolent, ghostly force be behind the terrifying events at Bly Manor?
9. The Sport of the Gods (142 pages)
If you’re only going to read one piece of work from Paul Laurence Dunbar, then we recommend you make it this short novel. Despite being under 200 pages, The Sport of the Gods is a harrowingly intense exploration of life for African-Americans post-emancipation.
The 1902 novella presents the bleak truth for so many Black families who were forced to leave the southern US and face the harsh reality of life in a northern city. A landmark in African-American literature, The Sport of the Gods is a deeply moving tale of familial struggle in times of great prejudice and racism. In summary, this short book is the ideal read for those looking to gain insight into the grim experience of so many Black families.
10. Notes from the Underground (142 pages)
This list of short classic books wouldn’t be complete without mentioning any of the great Russian novels in literary history. Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground (1864) is the author’s early masterpiece and one of the first examples of existentialist literature.
The perfect book for those who want to read philosophical texts in just a few hours, Notes from the Underground is presented as an immersive confessional rant from a bitter ex-civil servant. Retired and isolated from society, the anonymous narrator is contemptuous and contemplative as he presents his anecdotes and philosophical outlooks. Opening with a monologue attacking Western philosophy, Dostoevsky follows this theoretical exploration with the anti-hero’s accounts of various destructive and restorative life experiences.
One of the most famous short classic books in literary history, this volume demonstrates Dostoevsky’s sharp wit and keen understanding of the human psyche and is simply a must-read.
11. The Awakening (150 pages)
by Kate Chopin
If you’re interested in censored novels, this short book should go straight to the top of your TBR (to-be-read) list. The Awakening is an early example of feminist writing and on its publication in 1899, it was rejected due to its unorthodox messages regarding social attitudes towards women and motherhood.
Edna Pontellier is a young wife and mother who renounces the strict societal confines for women in late 1800s America and expresses a rare and powerful form of freedom. Kate Chopin’s short novel navigates Edna’s moral, emotional, and intellectual journey as she balances self-discovery and her growing independence with married life and societal expectations.
The Awakening is a feminist masterpiece and a crucial short classic in modernist American literature.
12. The Great Gatsby (153 pages)
Of all the short classic books that you definitely don’t want to miss out on, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, is arguably the most important. The novella, published in 1925, is considered one of the greatest works of twentieth-century literature.
If themes of disillusionment, self-destruction, and excessive drinking sound up your street, then this short novella is perfect for you. An intricate portrait of the exuberant Jazz Age, The Great Gatsby is set in the Roaring 20s. Featuring lavish parties, millionaires’ mansions, mysterious characters, and dark secrets, it warns of the dangers of chasing the American Dream.
With over 25 million copies of The Great Gatsby sold to date, this short classic will give you the perfect conversation starter.
13. Around the World in Eighty Days (176 pages)
For the more adventurous reader who lusts for travel, Around the World in Eighty Days is a whirlwind tour of the globe. As a result, it’s a quick read with a fast-paced plot.
Phileas Fogg leads a comfortable life and has a well-versed daily routine, so when he makes a bet with his friends that he’ll be able to circumnavigate the globe in just 80 days, he takes everyone by surprise. In the hopes of winning the £20,000 bet, Fogg sets off for Dover with his newly-hired valet, Passepartout, in tow. Together they explore the world, visiting luxurious lands and coming close to peril, with the constant pressure of the clock looming over them.
First published in 1872, Jules Gabriel Verne’s thrilling adventure novel has inspired many explorers. Allow yourself to be transported around the world in this swashbuckling classic.
14. O Pioneers! (178 pages)
by Willa Cather
For those who wish to broaden not only their literary knowledge but also their historical awareness, O Pioneers! is one of the best short novels to read. In under 200 pages, Willa Cather vividly captures the life of an immigrant family in twentieth-century America.
At a time when most were giving up, the father of a Swedish-American family passes away, leaving his daughter to look after their farm on the prairie. Determined to help her family prosper, Alexandra Bergson makes many sacrifices to enterprise the farm. Willa Cather’s remarkable novel is set against the beautiful Nebraskan scenery and is an elegy for the pioneers that shaped modern-day America. First published in 1913, this novel will take you through feelings of hope, joy, and tragedy as Cather explores the reality of life on the prairie.
15. Mrs. Dalloway (186 pages)
Mrs. Dalloway (1925) is the perfect place to start with Virginia Woolf’s books. This essential short classic features Clarissa Dalloway, a housewife married to a Conservative MP. In less than 200 pages, the reader lives a day in post-First World War London as the story follows Clarissa, her husband, and Septimus Warren Smith, a war veteran who has PTSD.
Written in Woolf’s trademark stream-of-consciousness narration, Mrs. Dalloway exposes these three characters’ raw, intimate feelings. Embedded with themes of existentialism, feminism, and mental illness, the book primarily takes place in Clarissa’s haunting recollections of the past. The epitome of Woolf’s writing style, Mrs. Dalloway is arguably the only way to get started with reading the remarkable author’s oeuvre.
16. The Railway Children (194 pages)
by E. Nesbit
Children’s novels are always a great place to start with classic literature. They are short, quick, and easy to read and full of enthralling twists and turns. Nesbit’s timeless classic, The Railway Children, is no exception to this rule.
This adventurous children’s classic begins when Bobbie, Peter, and Phyllis’ father disappears. Forced to leave their grand London home, the three siblings must suddenly make a new life in a little countryside cottage with their mother. Join the children as they discover the wonders of the railway behind their home and take it upon themselves to solve the mystery of their missing father.
First published in 1906, E. Nesbit’s brilliant short novel is an excellent lighthearted read for fans of mystery and the magic of everyday adventures. With under 200 pages, its charming character will keep you gripped right to the last line.
17. The War of the Worlds (216 pages)
by H. G. Wells
If science fiction is more up your street, this classic short novel could be exactly what you’re looking for. The War of the Worlds (1897) is one of the most talked-about works of science fiction in history. After a strange shooting star illuminates England’s night sky, a mysterious cylinder is discovered in Surrey. Despite the local people’s attempt at a calm approach, when extraterrestrial beings emerge from the curious object, it’s soon evident that peace is far from their minds.
Impress your friends by referencing this prolific science fiction novel and maybe get a few pointers on surviving an alien invasion.
18. The Picture of Dorian Gray (232 pages)
by Oscar Wilde
If you want to hop on board the dark academia trend but find yourself feeling a little intimidated by the 500-page novels that crowd the genre, The Picture of Dorian Gray is the perfect short read to help you access gothic fiction.
Oscar Wilde’s only novel is an enduring masterpiece and a thrilling exploration of humanity’s corruption. Delve into the dark world of the incredibly handsome and privileged gentleman Dorian Gray. In the gloom of Victorian London, Dorian has his portrait painted, but the canvas serves as a reminder of the youth and beauty he’s certain to lose. Immerse yourself in this gothic tale and discover the intrigue and secrecy of dark academia.
19. Northanger Abbey (238 pages)
by Jane Austen
While Pride and Prejudice is arguably the first classic novel that readers turn to when starting to read Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey (1817) is an ideal short book if you want to get a taste of the author’s famous wit and romance.
The perfect historical love story for those who don’t have enough time to get invested in Austen’s longer period romances, this novel is set in the beautiful city of Bath and parodies the gothic genre. Catherine Morland is an impressionable young girl with a fondness for romance. Her introduction to fashionable society exposes her not only to the love she desires but also to crime and horror.
This volume is rife with Austen’s wit and humour and is perfect for those who’re unsure where to start with her work.
20. Agnes Grey (244 pages)
by Anne Brontë
Lastly, completing our list of short classic books is a novel from one of literature’s most famous three sisters: the Brontës. We suggest Anne Brontë’s 1847 Agnes Grey as the perfect place to start as it’s the shortest of all the three sisters’ novels.
Arguably the lesser known of the Brontës, Anne’s short novel covers many of the same themes as Charlotte’s earlier work, Jane Eyre. Taking inspiration from her own life experiences, Anne writes about a young governess, Agnes Grey, and the struggles and joys she faces as she embarks on her challenging career.
To conclude, with themes of fierce feminine independence and a heart-warming love story, Agnes Grey is the ideal short novel to introduce you to the Brontës’ sensational literary world.
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