One-sitting books

I’ve been increasingly interested in a category of books I call “One-sitting Books.” It’s pretty self-explanatory. These are books that can usually be breezed through in a single setting. They are typically short — somewhere around 100-250 pages. And they need to be just that long. Nothing is extraneous.

Why are these books fascinating to me?

I’m increasingly starting to see reading as less a way to get knowledge into my brain and more a mechanism to slow down and focus on one thing at a time. The fact that you can finish these books in a single afternoon means that you are in a flow state for a while and exercising that muscle with a clear reward at the end — the feeling of completing a book. A corollary to this is the fact that motivation is harder to find, but easier to maintain over a short period of time. So these books tend to be enjoyed with a “strike while the iron is hot” philosophy.

There are other reasons too. Personally, I find myself gravitating towards them when I am struggling to read at all and I just need to grease the reading grooves a bit. Another use is after and in between much longer books that could double as doorstoppers. Last, they make for fantastic re-reads because of their brevity and pre-set comfort level.

There tend to be some themes that play well for these books. They are typically notes on someone’s craft (What I Talk About When I Talk about Running by Haruki Murakami, Draft No. 4 by John McPhee) and more general memoirs (No One Tells You This by Glynnis MacNicol). One curious (and grim) sub-genre here is autographies at the end of people’s lives (When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch). Outside of this core category of memoirs, there are a few business histories in this genre as well (Saudi America by Bethany McLean, Trust Me I’m Lying by Ryan Holiday). In the odd lots section, there are is one history book, The Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant, and a single novel that comes to mind — The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes.

This is not to say that longer books cannot be easy to read. If you’ve read any of my writing before, you’ll undoubtedly know that I’m a constantly shiller for The Years of Lyndon Johnson series by Robert Caro, which is often fast-paced and has a tendency for the dramatic — characteristics which make it a real page turner. The problem is that there are a lot of pages to turn. The cumulative volume sits at a hefty 3552 pages. This long-readable combo is vanishingly rare. Consider the fact that the only example I’m sharing here is a living legend according to the New York Historical Society!

In a world of Zoom backgrounds with tombs of books and trinkets, I’d like for there to a bit more love for the humble one-sitting book.