I hear people say things like, “I love reading, I just don’t have the time”, a lot. But I genuinely think that the only reason people think this is true is because they’re imagining trying to get stuck into The Lord Of The Rings or War and Peace between tube stations or over what’s already a short weekend. In fact, I know plenty of people who basically only read on their holidays, which I think is sad if it’s something you love doing. Save the doorstop-tomes for your Summer hols, sure, but your everyday reading life doesn’t have to be limited to news clips or Reddit threads.
Don’t get me wrong, I love a book that takes a month or more to read which you finish and feel like you’ve lost family members, and I can confirm that the more you read, the more time you find for it. But realistically, lockdowns aside, not everyone will believe me. So, instead of shouting into the void, I’ve drawn up a list of books that are perfectly suited to people who can’t commit to more than a couple of pages before bed, or between commute stops, so that you don’t end up reading the same chapter on repeat, trying to figure out what happened before you fell asleep or had to get off the train.
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Though James Acaster didn’t actually set out to write a memoir, he inadvertently did so when he compiled his most ludicrous stories into a book. I made the mistake of reading them on public transport and I was regularly choking on my spit as a result of trying not to guffaw publicly, so beware of that, but otherwise, it’s utterly perfect for “bite sized” reading. It’s hilarious, and organised into incidents throughout Acaster’s bizarre life, meaning if you only read one and then don’t get back to the book for a month, you won’t have any trouble.
If in doubt, the answer is often “read Bridget Jones’s Diary”. A diary format is great for busy bees, because they’re organised into nuggets which make reading a few at a time very manageable. While Bridget’s life woes, at the admission of the author, aren’t quite as relatable as when the book was originally published (… she’s overtly sexualised in the workplace, owns her own flat in London, and regularly complains that she’s on the verge of obesity at around 57kgs…), it’s a fun read and arguably a really great way to see how far we’ve come with feminism and body positivity in a relatively short period of time.
This is the most delightful memoir from South African comedian Trevor Noah, telling stories from his childhood in Apartheid South Africa. Noah was “born a crime” because he was born to a black mother and a white father, which was against the law in 1984, the year of his birth. Despite this pretty harrowing context, the stories, which you can read all at once or just one when you get a moment, are as side-achingly funny as Noah’s comedy always is and bits of history fall into place through the lens of his childhood. It’s powerful and uplifting. I love it.
I’m realising a pattern here, and it’s that books for people who don’t have a lot of time are usually funny. That makes sense, I suppose, given that the lighter the content, the easier it is to pick up for a minute or two without having to engage too deeply. But similarly to how Born A Crime is able to mix the harrowing and the hilarious, This Is Going To Hurt is a blend of devastating and hilarious. Before Adam Kay quit being a doctor and pursued a career in comedy and writing, he was an overworked, underpaid, and under-appreciated junior doctor working in the NHS. Luckily for us, he kept a diary throughout his experience and most of the time, you won’t believe this is fact over fiction.
And so another pattern emerges: memoirs and non-fiction are a reader with limited time’s friend. This one’s not funny, like the other ones, but is equally gripping. It’s a collection of personal essays, meaning you could swap from James Acaster’s retelling of nights spent in a bush in Basingstoke to Emilie Pine’s experience of the healthcare system in Greece depending on your mood, but either way you’ll be able to finish a section like its own little book.
Away from the memoirs and diaries and onto a short story collection recommendation: any anthology of Roald Dahl’s adult short stories is a treat. There’s also Switch Bitch and The Great Automatic Grammatizator, but Kiss Kiss is my favourite. They’re filled with all the naughtiness and mischief that we loved from his children’s books, but written for adults who revel in a little schadenfreude in their literature.
Either a long short story or a novella, Hemingway’s The Old Man And The Sea won’t take you long to read, but it’ll still give you the kind of warm fuzzy feeling you get when you finish a novel. Do not be apprehensive because it’s Hemingway. I often build up books by the likes of Hemingway, Woolf and Austen as the kind you’re forced to read at school rather than the kind you want to read, only to realise that they’re always lovely when there’s no 3-mark question about metaphor at stake. A bit of a “nothing happens and that’s the point” read, but a quick read and a powerful one nonetheless.
For both the sake of variety and to prove that novels can be considered “quick reads” too, I’m including this outrageously lovely, darkly comedic Nigerian novel, My Sister The Serial Killer. It does what it says on the box: tells the story of a young woman who has to deal with the fact that her sister has just killed boyfriend number three, meaning she’s technically a serial killer. You’ll fly through the chapters, which are short anyway so helpful if you’re reading before drifting off to sleep or on the bus.
Lastly, the flash fiction collection you didn’t know was missing from your life: a series of imaginings of Jeff Goldblum across the known and unknown universe. Meet Jeff Goldblum as a sweater on a shelf or a puzzle – it’s weird but it’s fun and pretty remarkable that there are enough variations to fill a book.