Several occasions during the year prompt us to reflect, to take stock of our life’s progress, habits, occupations, and relationships, and commit anew to what really matters. Holidays like Thanksgiving and New Year’s invite us to appreciate what we have, and identify room for personal improvement. The key, somber holidays in Judaism and Christianity – Yom Kippur and Easter – ask us to take time to forgive, heal, and reflect on ways we can be better people.
For me, birthdays too have served as a time to review and appreciate my situation, and reaffirm what is important. As I age, I tell my friends I would much rather linger over lunch with them than receive a gift. From where I sit now, what I really want is to be blessed with time: more time to ponder, more time in the company of those I love, more time relishing the present.
If stars should appear but one night every thousand years, how man would marvel and stare.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
Maybe it’s because I have always been an efficient sort, but I have a particular fondness for short books. I fell in love with short books early on: The Old Man and the Sea, The Moon is Down, The Human Comedy, The Great Gatsby, Franny and Zooey, Frankenstein, Death, Sleep & the Traveler, and countless others. I admire their tight prose – the fact that every word matters.
Frequently, short books have an intense tonal moodiness and a hyper-focus on one life. The Stranger, Waking, and Bonjour Tristese come to mind. Often, time is compressed and the reader compelled to fill in the backstories; often, the hero or heroine wrestles with the very fact of his/her existence. While short works may seem deceptively simple, much lurks beneath the surface, and a certain authority springs from the relatively contained subject matter.
In my first creative writing class while still in high school, our teacher asked us to write vignettes, two-page “slices of life” that captured some kind of epiphany. We read James Joyce’s Dubliners, noting the heartbreak in those snapshots, the pervasive sense that individuals were trapped. My stories emanated from overheard conversations, an awkward encounter on a public bus, a fantasy in a laundromat.
A smattering of favorite short books: To the Lighthouse, A Hero of Our Time, Demian, Pale Fire, End of the Road, Disgrace, Love Invents Us, When the Emperor Was Divine. Counting my two published works, I have now written four novels that all weighed in at just under 200 pages. You are what you read? You are what you love.