Leap Into a Book on Leap Day

For complicated reasons involving the Sun, the Earth, Julius Caesar and I’m pretty sure, the calendar industry, the concept of leap year was invented way back in 46 B.C. Ever since, we’ve been adding an extra day every four years in order to keep our calendars synced up with nature.

2016 is one of those years, so something special is happening after February 28: February 29. A whole day we didn’t have last year and won’t have next year. Think about it: everything you do on February 29 is something you wouldn’t have otherwise been able to do in 2016. (Actually, don’t think about it too hard. Just play along.)

What’s the best way to make the most of leap day? We recommend reading a book. A whole extra book for a whole extra day. Finishing a book in one day, or even one sitting, is a satisfying experience that everyone should try, and we figure leap day is a perfect day to try it. Fortunately, there are lots of great short books, including many classics, that you can knock out in a few hours or less. Here are some ideas.

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck (29,160 words)
As a kid, I always enjoyed reading, but the day I read this book straight through may be the day I truly fell in love with literature. Steinbeck’s taut 1937 novella about friendship, compassion and tragedy is immensely moving—and it moves quickly, too.

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway (26,601 words)
This fish tale, published in 1952, won the Pulitzer Prize and marked a comeback of sorts for Hemingway, who was pretty quiet during the 40s. Critics are divided about this novel; take a couple of hours and then decide for yourself.

The Art of War by Sun Tzu (21,080 words)
If novellas aren’t your thing, how about an ancient Chinese treatise on military tactics and strategy? This work on warfare, which dates to the 5th century B.C., has seen its principles applied to business, education, law and sports, in addition to military matters. It’s required reading in the CIA and has been championed by the likes of General Douglas MacArthur and NFL coach Bill Belichick.

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin (39,680 words)
Published in 1963 at the height of the Civil Rights era, this book—actually two long essays—takes a searing look at race relations in the United States. It resonates just as strongly today and served as the inspiration for Between the World and Me, the 2015 bestseller by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf (37,653 words)
This entertaining long essay is based on a series of the author’s university lectures and was published in 1929. In this slim volume, Woolf skewers sexism in the arts as she famously asserts that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” A feminist classic.

What are some of your favorite quick reads?

Mark is Art Director at Half Price Books Corporate.
You can follow him online here.

Best Short Story Writers & Why They (Just Might) Change Your Reading Life

The short story often gets short shrift. Years ago, when I was a newbie at Half Price Books back in the 70s, the woman training me to shelve Literature held aside all short-story collections. “We don’t put those on the shelves,” she told me. “They aren’t real literature.”  (I should clarify that her stance most definitely went against company guidelines.) I’ve always loved to read short stories, and the best of them have a place among the best literature.

In honor of the great Canadian short-story author Alice Munro receiving this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature, here’s a salute to Ms. Munro and some of her peers and predecessors who mastered the art of the short story. It’s a very personal list of writers who’ve had a big effect on me, so no complaints, please, about all of the great writers I’ve left out—Chekhov, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Kafka, Salinger, Updike, and others.

Edgar Allan Poe

Like many readers, I devoured Poe’s stories when I was a kid, and many of Poe’s images have stuck with me to this day.

For example:

“The Cask of Amontillado”

“The Masque of the Red Death”

“The Pit and the Pendulum”

(all from Tales of Mystery and Imagination)

Ray Bradbury

Right after Poe, Ray Bradbury came into my reading life, and I recall several mornings pedaling my bike to the bookstore to use my allowance on a Bradbury paperback.  Decades later, I still respond to the vivid, deep-red cover of my copy of The Illustrated Man.

For example:

“The Scythe” (from Dark Carnival)

“The Long Rain” (from The Illustrated Man)

“Dark They Were, and Golden-Eyed” (from A Medicine for Melancholy)

Flannery O’Connor

When I was in college, it was cool to read Flannery O’Connor.  Her dark, Southern-gothic tales dealt with mysticism, superstition, and racism, and featured a memorable cast of Southern misfits trying to make sense of their changing world.  All these years later, she still seems pretty cool.

For example:

“A Good Man is Hard to Find” (from A Good Man is Hard to Find)

“The Displaced Person” (from A Good Man is Hard to Find)

“Everything That Rises Must Converge” (from Everything That Rises Must Converge)

Eudora Welty

Like Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty was a Southerner who set her tales in The South, but her stories tended to be much gentler, even when they dealt with racial tension.   

For example:

“A Worn Path” (from A Curtain of Green)

“Powerhouse” (from A Curtain of Green)

“The Wide Net” (from The Wide Net)

John Cheever

Cheever was a New Yorker.  Most of his stories were set in New York or nearby, and many of his stories first appeared in The New Yorker, but they still appealed to this Texas boy.  Cheever caught the idiosyncrasies and failings of the “Mad Men” set while it was happening.     

For example:

“The Sorrows of Gin” (from The Housebreaker of Shady Hill)

“The Swimmer” (from The Brigadier and the Golf Widow)

“Chimera” (from The World of Apples)

Raymond Carver

Carver pioneered the minimalist, slice-of-blue-collar-life story.  Many featured people living at the margins: “men behaving badly,” and women trying to understand them. 

For Example:

“Neighbors” (from Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?)

“Tell the Women We’re Going” (from What We Talk About When We Talk About Love)

“A Small, Good Thing” (from Cathedral)

George Saunders

I discovered the dark, inventive stories of George Saunders when many other readers did—early this year when his book Tenth of December received glowing reviews and made the bestseller lists.  Saunders has three previous short-story collections, and I hear they’re all great but haven’t located them yet.  I’ll keep checking the shelves at HPB.  Some favorites from Tenth of December:


“Victory Lap”


Alice Munro

Munro said, “For years and years I thought that stories were just practice, till I got time to write a novel.  Then I found that they were all I could do, and so I faced that. I suppose that my trying to get so much into stories has been a compensation.”  She announced at the time of the publication of her 14th collection, Dear Life, that it would be her last.  We’ll see whether it really is, but either way, she has created a consistently fascinating body of work.

Check out:

“Tell Me Yes or No” (from Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You)

“The Bear Came Over the Mountain” (from Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage)

“Chance” (from Runaway)

My honorable-mentions include Katharine Mansfield, Jorge Luis Borges, T.C. Boyle, William Trevor, and Tobias Wolff, and I’m leaving out many others.  Who are your favorite short-story writers?

11 Quick Reads: Books Under 200 Pages

Some of the best things in life come in small packages, like diamond rings —  and short novels. One of my favorite things about short novels is that most have an incredibly simple plot, but fit an incredibly amount of emotion and even action into such a small package. These 11 “quick reads” are all under 200 pages (in at least one of their formats). Short novels can be fantastic to tote along with you this summer while lying on the beach for an afternoon or during the kids’ soccer practice.

Even at 11 books, this list seems incomplete. What quick read that’s under 200 pages would you add to this list? — Kristen B.