In high school, I dreaded reading George Orwell's Animal Farm . I remember hearing the upperclassmen complain about how boring they thought it was, and I nodded along. After all, it was about animals, and on a farm no less. I walked into it quite sincerely believing I was going to be reading a book-length ode to Old MacDonald and his barnyard of animals.
Of course, I was completely wrong. Animal Farm is a complex book that uses farm animals as stand-ins for wider issues of democracy and communism. It was riveting, and I completed the book long before my classmates. When I switched schools and was assigned to read it again, I was thrilled.
Looking back, my misplaced assumptions do make sense. Animals are largely associated with children's books and nursery rhymes. While unfair to assume that the book would be simple and boring, I wasn't exactly out of line with everyone else. Often, we generalize and judge books that are short as easy; we look at a colorful cover or quickly skim a book jacket and put aside because it doesn't seem advanced enough. I know I'm definitely guilty of that, even now.
Sometimes it's a way of sorting through the piles of books in my room, but I think it has more to do with wanting to feel productive: "Look what I read!" I might share, holding up an epically long novel, equating length with further productivity and depth.
So go read a short book or one that may sound a little simple. You may be surprised by what you find and learn. To start, here are seven deep books that hide behind a simple idea.
1. This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life by David Foster Wallace
Infinite Jest may earn you bragging rights or an eye roll, depending on who you are speaking to, but you don't need to read David Foster Wallace's massive novel to get a grasp on his genius ideas. Originally presented as a commencement address at Kenyon College in 2005, Wallace's words in This Is Water will motivate you to live a better and more empathy-filled life. Just keep a box of tissues nearby.
2. Life of Pi by Yann Martel
I shrugged off Life of Pi for far too long because I let my judgement get in the way. Similarly to my experience with Animal Farm, I assumed that the presence of animal made for a simple, and even boring, story. Instead what I found was a captivating novel that meditates on religion, grief, and the power of storytelling that has gone on to inspire some of the deepest conversations with friends.
3. Talk by Linda Rosenkrantz
Three friends spend the summer at the Hamptons and talk about life, work, and sex. That's it. Talk may seem just like another novella about supposedly self-obsessed twentysomethings, but what makes it different is the author Linda Rosenkrantz recorded real-life conversations, and Talk is the result. Recently reissued, Rozenkrantz's book is like Sex and the City or Girls but set during the 1960s and even more compelling for its frankness and willingness to talk about uncomfortable subjects.
4. Kindred by Octavia Butler
While not necessarily simple-sounding, Kindred at first seems like a basic time-traveling story. By some unknown force, a woman is transported to the past and seems to be given a mission to help a young child. Except, the place she ends up in a Southern plantation, and the child she must help is white, and she is black. Introducing a set of complex moral dilemmas — would you help someone if you knew your own existence hung in the balance — Octavia Butler doesn't offer any easy answers, which makes for an all the more challenging and compelling story.
5. Novels in Three Lines by Félix Fénéon
Félix Fénéon was composing witty stories in roughly under 140 characters long before Twitter took over our lives. At the turn of the 20th century, he wrote some of the most darkly funny stories for the French newspaper Le Matin. Length is no qualifier of humor or depth, and Fénéon mini-novels prove it.
6. They Shoot Horses, Don't They? by Horace McCoy
Grim and bleak, Horace McCoy's novella at first seems just like a story of a relationship gone awry and murderous, but there's more at play than the pulpy and noir-ish setting. In a seemingly never-ending dance competition, McCoy explores themes that dominate discussions of reality TV and game shows in the present day. It's a bit like a modern-day parable for darkening economic times, except with an existentially dark twist.
7. The Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown
This list wouldn't be complete without at least one children's book. While The Runaway Bunny is ultimately about a mother's love, it's also about acceptance and home. Personally, I can never look at this book the same way after reading the play Wit and watching the film adaption starring Emma Thompson, where it is linked to John Dunne's poetry and larger more adult themes of religion, belief, and death. Whatever you believe, you'll need tissues.