Lately I’ve found myself collecting short non-fiction books. Collecting makes it sound grandiose, but my stash of 30 or so volumes is smaller in aggregate than a breadbox. It’s also been less intentional than the word “collecting” implies: The books seem to turn up of their own accord like stray kittens or spare socks, orphaned except for the company of their own kind. Each one on its own might not amount to much, but together they comprise a highly portable compendium of human knowledge.
Monographs are in style, from Ben Lerner’s The Hatred of Poetry to Kristin Dombek’s The Selfishness of Others and Edwidge Danticat’s The Art of Death, all presenting critical, topical investigations driven by the wry voices of their authors. The format can be a venue for public discourse on pressing issues, too, as in Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends, a harrowing first-person look into the immigration system, or Eula Biss’s On Immunity, with its eloquent delineation of vaccines. Brian Dillon’s Essayism, however, is the ultimate literary ouroboros: a book-length essay on essayists.
The short book can also be a container for the self without the self-aggrandizement of a full memoir. Rivka Galchen’s Little Labors and Gregor Hens’s Nicotine both fit here, as does the Italian translator Franco Nasi’s lovely pamphlet about living in the United States, Translator’s Blues. Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness and 300 Arguments likewise offer only slantwise glimpses of the author through aphoristic fragments sharp as darts. It’s easy to recognize yourself in them: A friend memorably described the latter as “subtweets about your life.”
The Twitter connection is apropos, since social media has contributed to our sense of a depleted attention span. Is the short book popular because we just can’t handle more than 150 pages anymore? The form does thrive in tweets and Instagrams as intellectual plumage. It’s easy to finish them, and thus easier to brag about having read them. “They come already compressed,” Christine Smallwood observed of the trend in T Magazine. “You will learn something, for sure, but not more than you can handle.”
But this gloss gives short books short shrift. Short books are not narratives, but devices: instead of the telescope of a long novel or history tome, they are a pair of sunglasses, allowing you to see the world, briefly and temporarily, in a different shade. Most mornings, I look at the stack on my shelf, a rainbow of thin spines, and pick a few to carry with me—to a cafe, on the subway, to my office. Like choosing an outfit, the books both express and influence how I feel that day.
Say the mood is colorful. Here you have options, because a single color is the perfect subject for a short book. In Bluets, Maggie Nelson can tell you about blue, and patches of blue outside seem to glow with new meaning. Alain Badiou’s Black offers the semiotics of that “non-color,” shot through with his own memories of (literally) dark moments: as a child playing in an unlit room or camping out in the French military. Kenya Hara, a Japanese designer, meditates on the emptiness of white in White; Han Kang has her own version coming up with The White Book.
Each of these volumes frees its mates of the burden of being comprehensive: The short book doesn’t need to pretend that it’s the only object a reader has at hand. Instead, they are entries in a collective lexicon, a library you can take with you.
For a bracing blast of postmodern ennui, pick up the architect Rem Koolhaas’s Junkspace, an aria to the endlessness of 21st-century detritus: “The aesthetic is Byzantine, gorgeous and dark, splintered into thousands of shards, all visible at the same time.” Or you could carry Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 38 pages that upend the world: “The instant the criterion of genuineness in art production failed, the entire social function of art underwent an upheaval.” Or George W.S. Trow’s Within the Context of No Context, a fractured 1981 diagnosis of the impact of mass media on American identity: “Comfort failed. Who would have thought that it could fail?”
These contain potent medicine (or poison, I sometimes think), and it’s a relief that each ends before too long, though still long enough to change your life. Like a pill, their form is always inextricable from their content, just right for proper delivery of the drug within.
The short book demonstrates ways in which to live, but rather than self-help’s prescriptive explanations, it is content to evoke possibilities. The Swiss writer Fleur Jaeggy’s aptly titled These Possible Lives gives prismatic recitations of the biographies of Thomas De Quincey, John Keats, and Marcel Schwob, reducing what could be thousands of pages into a scant 60 of hallucinatory description. Shawn Wen’s A Twenty Minute Silence Followed by Applause sketches an impressionistic biography of Marcel Marceau, a famed French mime. I like the book’s voyeurism into the peculiar life, but also observing the challenge—and Wen’s success—of describing in words Marceau’s absence thereof. (The short book is also great for writer’s block.)
The paragon of the short-book form, for my taste, is In Praise of Shadows by the Japanese novelist Jun’ichirō Tanizaki. In the 42-page essay first published in 1933, Tanizaki contrasts the Japanese appreciation of darkness—the dim of rice-paper windows, candle lanterns, and black lacquered dishes—with the Westerner’s “quest for a brighter light:” electric lamps, glass windows, and white porcelain. The book’s brevity is synecdochic: It contains the world, from Noh drama to Albert Einstein, “murmuring soup,” the difficulties of building a house, an obscure local recipe for sushi, and what the author perceived as the roots of Japanese identity.
Tanizaki persistently reminds readers that the essay is merely his vision, a personal worldview as an elderly novelist perhaps more at home in the previous century than his present. He claims no authority. Yet his ambition is grand, to preserve in writing that particular lens so that it might be experienced by others: “I would call back at least for literature this world of shadows we are losing,” he writes in the book’s final paragraph. Every time I open it, the patches of shade around me are briefly illuminated by Tanizaki’s prose.
I Instagrammed In Praise of Shadows so many times that friends asked how long I was taking to finish it. Rather than some kind of brag, I just liked how it looked—it was fun to put a monochrome book about darkness in patches of bright sunlight, a visual pun. But getting to the end of a short book isn’t the point. It’s about rereading, mulling, flipping it open to see what you find, turning it over like a coin in your pocket.
Tanizaki’s essay accomplishes the highest criteria I have for any book, short or long, which is that it offers an alternative aesthetic imaginary, a toolset to reconstruct the world in real time. Its voice sneaks into your head. And its format makes it convenient to keep hidden away in my bag, with me at all times.