Struggling these days to sustain the focus you need to read? Friend, you’re not alone. Maybe you’ve always had a short attention span, or maybe the general state of the world combined with the shortening winter days is making it difficult to sit down with a book and tune everything else out. If you’ve only got a little attention to spare, this probably isn’t the time to pick up War and Peace. And that’s okay! Here are 20 short books hand-selected for qualities that make them ideal for short attention spans.
Each book in this listicle is under 200 pages, and to make it even easier, all descriptions below are under 100 words. Within each genre heading, I’ve arranged the books from shortest to longest. Half fiction, half nonfiction, these short books for short attention spans range from literary fiction to sci-fi to essays to illustrated humor. No matter what you’re in the mood to read, I hope you find solace and escape in one of these books.
Short Novels for Short Attention Spans
Fair Play by Tove Jansson, Translated from the Finnish by Thomas Teal
Mari and Jonna are two artists who live on opposite ends of a shared apartment. Their home is a charming metaphor for their relationship; they have lived together in a committed partnership for decades, yet they each understand the other’s need for private space to withdraw and work. This slim novel is essentially a collection of interconnected short stories, offering snapshots of the two women doing life together. It brings into focus the full range of petty disagreements and quiet kindnesses that come to define such devoted relationships.
La Bastarda by Trifonia Melibea Obono, Translated from the Spanish by Lawrence Schimel
An orphaned teen in Central Africa is drawn into a tight-knit circle of queer girls who once defended her gay uncle. She begins exploring her own sexuality in rebellion against her overbearing grandmother and their strict Fang culture. Expand your reading horizons in one sitting with this novella from the Feminist Press, the first book by a woman from Equatorial Guinea to be translated into English.
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, Translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori
Keiko Furukura has never felt like she belongs. At 18 she takes a job at a convenience store—and continues working there for 18 years. At 36, she’s perfectly content to spend her days serving customers and organizing shelves, but mounting pressures from her family and friends to pursue a “normal” life send her on a dangerous spiral outside of her comfort zone. I read this novella without stopping, totally captivated by Keiko’s unique character and increasingly bizarre, desperate attempts to achieve the appearance of normalcy.
Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill
Dept. of Speculation is a portrait of a marriage, composed as a collage of moments, thoughts, and visits to “the Little Theater of Hurt Feelings.” Our narrator is a witty woman known only to us as “the wife,” a writer who exchanged her aspirations of being an “art monster” for marriage and motherhood. Her keen observations chronicle the trials and triumphs of this life as it plays out. Jenny Offill has the kind of prose style that absorbs you so completely that you’ll need to remind yourself to come up for air.
Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher
This delightfully funny novel is written entirely in letters of recommendation by Jason Fitger, an overworked English professor in an underfunded department whose once-promising writing career has fizzled out. Now, his greatest literary creations are the increasingly sarcastic and absurd letters he writes for colleagues and students, which collectively tell a tale of his descent into existential despair. The epistolary format makes this an ideal book for short attention spans, as you can dive in for just a letter or two at a time or breeze through the whole novel before you know it.
Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson
This novella opens in Brooklyn at the coming-of-age ceremony of 16-year-old Melody. It then stretches back in time to tell the stories of her parents and grandparents, and the life-altering decisions in their teen years that shaped the course of their adult lives. If you’re craving an intergenerational family saga but don’t have the attention span for the door-stopping tomes this genre entails, Jacqueline Woodson has you covered. At less than 200 pages, this magical book is somehow bigger on the inside.
Short Speculative Fiction Books for Short Attention Spans
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Translated from the French by Richard Howard
A pilot stranded in the desert meets a young prince who asks him to draw a sheep. If by some chance you haven’t read The Little Prince yet, what’s stopping you? Literally nothing. It’s under 100 pages and full of pictures, yet still manages to be one of the most profound stories of love, friendship, and meaning-making that I have ever read. And should any of you object by saying “But it’s for children!” may I then suggest that you need this book more than most?
Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls
A woman trapped in a dull marriage meets an amphibious man escaped from a nearby research facility, who she takes as her lover. Lately this novella has often been compared to Guillermo del Toro’s film The Shape of Water, but this under-celebrated work was published 35 years earlier and can actually be read in less time than it would take you to watch the movie. Plus, this sea monster talks, so it’s honestly more like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, if Frankenstein’s monster had a little more luck in love.
Landscape with Invisible Hand by M.T. Anderson
When vuvvs colonize earth, they bring with them technology, advanced medicine, and a fascination with vintage human culture. Aspiring artist Adam and his girlfriend Chloe profit from this by performing 1950s-style human dates for their captive alien audience. They soon start to despise each other but are forced to keep up the façade, as vuvv technology has rendered most earthen jobs obsolete without altering the planet’s brutal capitalist system. This intriguing futuristic fantasy novella offers wry commentary on privilege, class, economics, and the future of work.
The Deep by Rivers Solomon, Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, and Jonathan Snipes
The Deep explores the mythology of the wajinru, the mermaid-like descendants of pregnant Africans thrown overboard from slave ships. It follows Yetu, the historian of her people who stores their collective memories so they can live unencumbered by their traumatic origins—until it becomes too much for her to bear alone. Novelist Rivers Solomon adapted the story from a song of the same name by the rap group clipping., whose members include Hamilton star Daveed Diggs. The book skips over the dense chapters typically required for fantasy world-building, instead offering readers with short attention spans just a glimpse.
Short Nonfiction Books for Short Attention Spans
Here Is New York by E.B. White
Here Is New York is beloved author E.B. White’s love letter to the city. Though written in the summer of 1948, his reflections on the magnetic pull of this island ring true for its life-long residents, commuters, and settlers even today. “The island of Manhattan is without any doubt the greatest human concentrate on earth,” he writes, “the poem whose magic is comprehensible to millions of permanent residents but whose full meaning will always remain elusive.” Speaking from personal experience, it’s the perfect length for reading during a subway ride from Midtown to central Brooklyn.
For Every One by Jason Reynolds
You could call this book a poem, a letter, or a motivational speech, but no matter how you label it, For Every One is a push for dreamers on the verge of leaping into a promising unknown. The physical book is beautifully designed with only a few lines on each page, making you flip through like lightning as Reynolds’s words feed some untended inner fire. “The truth is,” he writes, “our dreams could be as far away as forever or as close as lunchtime”; but whether we “make it” or not, he reminds us that there is “courage in trying.”
A Week at the Airport: A Heathrow Diary by Alain de Botton
In 2009, Alain de Botton spent a week as a “writer-in-residence” at London’s Heathrow Airport, living out the dream of people watchers everywhere. In this short book, he offers meditations on transitory spaces and the nature of journeys. He moves quickly through sections on departure, transit, and arrival, his reflections held together by the countless scenes he observed during his stay. With an illustrative photo on nearly every page, it makes for a quick, satisfying read.
New Erotica for Feminists: Satirical Fantasies of Love, Lust, and Equal Pay by Caitlin Kunkel, Carrie Wittmer, Fiona Taylor, and Brooke Preston
The best way to explain feminist erotica is with an example: “He calls me into his office and closes the door…to promote me. He promotes me again and again. I am wild with ecstasy.” Playing on common tropes of the genre, this collection of satirical writing invites the reader to imagine herself into fantasy worlds with things like a gender-balanced congress and Tinder dates who respect boundaries. Most of the bits are only a few paragraphs each, making this an easy book to enjoy a little at a time.
You may know Sarah Cooper for her Donald Trump lip syncs or Netflix comedy special Everything Is Fine. Before becoming an internet phenomenon, however, she worked at Yahoo! and Google, where she spent a lot of time looking smart in meetings. In this book, she shares 100 hilarious illustrated tricks such as #14: “React to everything as if you already knew that” and #55: “Before moving on, ask if it’s OK to move on.” She also provides helpful charts and graphs covering important topics like what to do with your face (key in the Zoom era!).
Short Memoirs for Short Attention Spans
The Clothing of Books by Jhumpa Lahiri
In this slim essay, author Jhumpa Lahiri explores the relationship between the text of a book and the jacket that clothes it. She combines insight into the history and role of book covers with personal reflections as both a reader and an author. Punctuated with stories from her girlhood, this short book is a delightful read for any book lover who’s ever examined a jacket and wanted to know more about how it came to be.
Tiny Moons: A Year of Eating in Shanghai by Nina Mingya Powles
A young woman raised in Australia seeks to connect to her Chinese-Malaysian heritage during a year spent studying Mandarin in Shanghai. Comprised of 11 bite-size essays, this collection offers meditative reflections on family, solitude, and belonging, intertwined with mouthwatering descriptions of noodles, dumplings, and sesame pancakes.
The Cost of Living: A Working Autobiography by Deborah Levy
After divorcing her long-time husband at the age of 50, Deborah Levy began interrogating the role of women in modern society through a fresh lens as she constructed a new life for herself. She illustrates her thought processes with examples from both literature and reality, showcasing observed moments of female erasure. As she notes, “All writing is about looking and listening and paying attention to the world.” Composed of 14 brief essays, this is a memoir that can be read in a single sitting or across a dozen stolen snippets of time in the margins of life.
I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown
Austin Channing Brown is a Black woman whose parents named her so that on paper she could be mistaken for a white man. Raised in predominantly white spaces, she had to learn how to embrace her Blackness despite being surrounded by subtle (and not-so-subtle) anti-Black sentiment. In these deeply personal essays, she offers insight into the prevalence of racism in churches and Christian nonprofits and recounts her journey to fighting for racial justice within these institutions and the larger world. These short, digestible essays cover a lot of ground quickly while still leaving the reader plenty to reflect on.
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami, Translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel
Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami’s brief memoir is primarily a chronicle of his running life, rather than his writing life. Yet he uses the sport as a frame for illuminating the relationship between physical exercise and the cerebral creative process. If you’re usually wary of writers writing about writing, then this writer’s memoir will be a welcome, innovative relief.