The Short Book as Lifejacket in a Sea of Words

by Ella King
by Ella King

Go down any road far enough and you’ll come to a slaughterhouse, but keep going and you’ll reach the sea.

Dean Young

— For Curtis Mumford

I read fervently for a few years when I was a kid. Between the ages of about 6 and 14 I lost myself in the spell-binding worlds of Enid Blyton (The Famous Five), C.S. Lewis (The Chronicles of Narnia), and R.L. Stine (Goosebumps), among others. And then one day I just put one book down and didn’t pick another up (school books aside) for almost ten years. Why did this happen? Was it because of the religious school I attended? To give you an idea of my school’s philosophy, Harry Potter was banned on the claim that J.K. Rowling was a Satanist! Or was it due to the invisible tsunami of information that was suddenly channeled through modems into every middleclass home in the early 2000s? And what about the rise of social media and smartphones that followed the internet? Unprecedented distractions! Lights, pixels, likes! Porn & Pokémon, streaming & stealing! Myspace, Facebook etc. etc.  It was probably a complex mix of these circumstances and several other factors besides. But I’m not going to do a deep analysis of all that right now. Here I am, looking at my laptop, getting characteristically distracted from my topic. Books. Reading. Not reading.

It took me until the age of 24 to rediscover reading. In the year or so leading up to that point I’d started telling myself “you should start reading again”, “you need to pick up a book”, “you should make the time to read”. And I tried. I half-heartedly picked up a few spiritualistic self-help books. Nothing left me spell-bound. It all felt like a chore. Then one day, shortly before leaving Australia, I was hanging out with one of my best friends, Curtis. Curtis is a bear of a man: tattoos, shaved head, blunts and muscle. But the armour-plated exterior belies his sensitive, big-hearted and intellectual inner-self. Curtis has always loved books. He used to get bullied as a kid for being the friendless bookworm, sitting alone on the playground reading Dickens and Austen. One day a group of bigger boys chased him across the courtyard. As one of them tackled him from behind, Curtis accidently smashed the boy’s nose with the corner of his hardcover Oliver Twist. With blood and snot smeared on his shirt, Curtis suddenly learned how to protect himself. From then on, when bullies came after him, he fought them off with his books . . .

I don’t think anyone would mess with him now, though. We were sitting in his bedroom, which I can best describe as a baroque mix of Shakespeare, 2Pac, Buddha and Rocky Balboa. Weed smoke drifted along the high ceiling. Curtis sat shirtless, all bicep and sweat-gleaming post-gym six-pack, silhouetted by Melbourne’s smoky dusk light pouring in the window. He was telling me how he discovered his love of Eastern philosophy on his gap year in Europe while on the run from a notorious Czech hit man whose daughter he’d briefly dated. He had stumbled onto her father knocking someone off and had to flee Prague. “But, you know, my path led me to Ibiza.” Then, changing the subject (as if worried he’d been boring me with a description of his morning toast!) he put a book into my hands and said, “Just try it, brother. Just start here. Easy.”

A rare snap of the man himself, Curtis, wearing a hat, next to the mythological critter named Benni, wearing homemade pants. Melbourne 2013. ©Brendon Booth-Jones

That book was no masterpiece. Curtis knew that. But he knew it was a page-turner. It was engrossing. And before I’d realised it, it was finished. Ah! What a feeling! It was like being a kid again, hanging at home on a rainy Sunday and weaving myself into the rich tapestry of someone else’s life. Thank you for that book, brother.

It was my renaissance. I wanted to read anything and everything. I was insatiable. And of course, my sparkling enthusiasm bubbled over into almost all my conversations, especially when meeting new people. “So, do you read?”

But, more often than not, I was left disappointed. “I want to read more”, “I used to read a lot as a kid”, “I’d love to, but I don’t have the time”. All the same excuses I had told myself for the last ten years! And so, after a while, I stopped asking.

But occasionally I’ve met non-readers who genuinely wanted to sink their teeth into literature, but simply had no idea where to begin. I became friends with an English dude my age in Paris who told me he really wanted to get into reading. “Have you tried any books recently?” I asked. Yes he had. In the stale lobby of some faded Parisian hotel he’d randomly picked up James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, and drowned in a vast, ocean-heavy, experimental novel with passages like:

“Sir Tristram, violer d’amores, fr’over the short sea, had passen-core rearrived from North Armorica on this side the scraggy isthmus of Europe Minor to wielderfight his penisolate war: nor had topsawyer’s rocks by the stream Oconee exaggerated themselse to Laurens County’s gorgios while they went doublin their mumper all the time”.

And it made me think that what people are missing is the joy and feeling of accomplishment from finishing a book. Geoff Dyer said that no matter how much you are loving a book, no matter how much you don’t want it to end, you do actually always want it to end. You look ahead to see how many pages are left. You feel a sense of wholeness and a floating relief when it is over. This feeling of completion is part of the experience of reading. One of the best parts, actually.

And then you get to choose a new book to read. I relish this part. There are thousands of potential gems that could change your life. Kafka famously said that a book should be an axe to crack open the frozen sea within us. How exquisitely put. We get so iced up and stuck in the loop of our own conscious experience and reading allows us to enter the lives of people from different times and different worlds. Reading great books is like having personal, one-on-one conversations with the greatest minds that ever lived. And there are so many incredible novels, essays, poems and stories out there. And that’s why I’m going to recommend the practice of reading short books.

Because it’s so easy to drown in the endless storm of vast, million-page tomes out there. But here’s the thing: there are also thousands upon thousands of excellent short books, especially now that we have deconstructed the ‘Western canon’ and opened the literary tradition up to include writers from diverse backgrounds. You could spend your whole life reading good short books and you’d never run out of options. When I’m busy with a million other things in my life, I choose shorter books. I can read one or two of these a week, even when I’m only reading before bed and on the weekends. So here are a few recommendations for people who love to read but are very busy, and also for those people who want to get into (or back into) reading (and who are probably very busy too). I have chosen these titles directly from my personal shelves. They’re all less than 200 pages long, and I have selected a mix of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. May short books be your lifejacket in the sea of words.


James Baldwin: Dark Days

This short collection of essays is only fifty pages long, but it packs a massive punch. James Baldwin was a gay African American man who grew up in New York in the early 20th Century. He was an incredibly brave writer who condemned the institutional racism present in America with blistering directness and authority. He fled to France in his 20s and spent most of the rest of his life there, though much of what he wrote concerned American racism and the terrible psychic burden it imposed on black Americans. This book can be read in a couple of hours, but will stay in your thoughts long afterwards. Read it and tell me that your empathy and outrage (or lack thereof) have not been shifted.

Page count: 50

John Berger: Ways of Seeing

Another mind-altering book. Berger makes a connection between classical painting and advertising, and demonstrates how images are used to manipulate our desires. Berger shows how dependent capitalism is on the power of advertising to narrow the market’s choices. “Capitalism survives by forcing the majority, whom it exploits, to define their own interests as narrowly as possible.” It achieves this by “imposing a false standard of what is and what is not desirable”.

Page count: 166


Virginia Woolf: Flush

Woolf is known for her ground-breaking stream-of-consciousness modernist novels, such as Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse. Both of those are wondrous books, but if you’re looking for a quick and easy route into this canonical writer, then Flush is your answer. Woolf satirizes the fusty Victorian biographies of famous 19th Century men by writing a fictionalized biography of a real dog named Flush, who belonged to the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning. It might sound silly, but I found it to be very moving, and beautifully written.

Page count: 111

Ben Lerner: Leaving the Atocha Station

Lerner wrote three books of poetry before this debut novel. He has since completed another two novels. His poetry is wickedly funny but extremely obtuse and esoteric. Leaving the Atocha Station is an easier place to start. It’s about a self-loathing, highly intelligent and hilariously self-conscious American poet who has won a scholarship to Madrid. He spends most of his time wandering around procrastinating, not writing poems, fumbling with the Spanish language and having awkward relationships. But Lerner uses his “hero” to ruminate on some interesting ideas about art and politics and the way we attempt to make sense of the world in the internet age.

Page count: 181  


Billy Collins: The Best Cigarette

This is actually an audio book (which, by the way, is a great way to ‘read’ if you’re short on time or have trouble reading—and this one is only 67 minutes long). I recommend Collins here because poetry can be an especially daunting form to get into, and he makes a great case for clarity and accessibility. The Best Cigarette is actually read by Collins himself, with wry, self-deprecating comments between poems. Here is one of the poems from the collection, called “Nostalgia”:

Remember the 1340s? We were doing a dance called the Catapult.
You always wore brown, the color craze of the decade,
and I was draped in one of those capes that were popular,
the ones with unicorns and pomegranates in needlework.
Everyone would pause for beer and onions in the afternoon,
and at night we would play a game called “Find the Cow.”
Everything was hand-lettered then, not like today.

Where has the summer of 1572 gone? Brocade and sonnet
marathons were the rage. We used to dress up in the flags
of rival baronies and conquer one another in cold rooms of stone.
Out on the dance floor we were all doing the Struggle
while your sister practiced the Daphne all alone in her room.
We borrowed the jargon of farriers for our slang.
These days language seems transparent a badly broken code.

The 1790s will never come again. Childhood was big.
People would take walks to the very tops of hills
and write down what they saw in their journals without speaking.
Our collars were high and our hats were extremely soft.
We would surprise each other with alphabets made of twigs.
It was a wonderful time to be alive, or even dead.

I am very fond of the period between 1815 and 1821.
Europe trembled while we sat still for our portraits.
And I would love to return to 1901 if only for a moment,
time enough to wind up a music box and do a few dance steps,
or shoot me back to 1922 or 1941, or at least let me
recapture the serenity of last month when we picked
berries and glided through afternoons in a canoe.

Even this morning would be an improvement over the present.
I was in the garden then, surrounded by the hum of bees
and the Latin names of flowers, watching the early light
flash off the slanted windows of the greenhouse
and silver the limbs on the rows of dark hemlocks.

As usual, I was thinking about the moments of the past,
letting my memory rush over them like water
rushing over the stones on the bottom of a stream.
I was even thinking a little about the future, that place
where people are doing a dance we cannot imagine,
a dance whose name we can only guess.


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