Why you should care
Because small is beautiful.
My fascination with “pocket-size” books began in church, in Nigeria, with a forest green Anglican prayer book — just the right size for my 5-year-old hands. Later, I would discover the miniature delights of Peter Rabbit and friends. Love of these small reads — so easy to carry and enjoy in a single sitting — has continued into adulthood. These days you can find everything from essays to novellas, and chapbooks in pocket form. Here are some of my favorites:
The Face by Ruth Ozeki
What stories can a face tell? This is the premise of The Face series from Restless Books, in which authors write an essay using their face as a focal point. Sound crazy? Well wait till you hear how Ruth Ozeki, Zen Buddhist priest and novelist, decided to stare at her face for three uninterrupted hours as the inspiration behind her book. Through this exercise of “immersive attention,” Ozeki writes a fascinating essay-memoir on heritage, ancestors and aging.
A Week at the Airport by Alain de Botton
In the summer of 2009, Alain de Botton was commissioned to spend a week at Heathrow Airport’s newest passenger hub, Terminal 5. Through often funny observations, philosophical musings and a few photographs, readers are treated to an exclusive peek behind the scenes — like how airline food is made and who makes it, and where the planes sleep while busy hands fix their innards and stroke their noses. It is, however, de Botton’s observed characters that most intrigue me: the man with throat cancer and his regular Sofitel rendezvous and the children who play with their “gifts” of Legos while their parents plead next door to remain in the U.K.
Shebeen Tales: Messages From Harare by Chenjerai Hove
Illegal bars (shebeens) form the setting of these bittersweet tales from a celebrated Zimbabwean writer. Written with a wry sense of humor that greets a reader from the very titles themselves (“The City of Problems and Laughters,” “Queuing for Death” and “Once Upon a Democracy — Zimbabwe”), these stories are both a celebration of everyday life and a critique of the rich and powerful. Shebeen Tales shines a light on the wider societal problems that plagued Zimbabwe in the 1990s, from the AIDS epidemic to droughts and economic hardships.
Things I Don’t Want to Know by Deborah Levy
In this clever response to George Orwell’s essay “Why I Write,” Levy combines memoir, history and social commentary to illustrate why and how she writes from a distinctly feminist perspective: “Perhaps when Orwell described sheer egoism as a necessary quality for a writer, he was not thinking about the sheer egoism of a female writer,” Levy posits, adding, “Even the most arrogant female writer has to work over time to build an ego that is robust enough to get her through January, never mind all the way to December. … To become a writer, I had to learn to interrupt, to speak up, to speak a little louder and then louder and then to just speak in my own voice, which is not loud at all.”
The Nobel Lecture in Literature, 1993 by Toni Morrison
Morrison’s once-heard-always-remembered lecture is a parable about an old blind woman who is tested by children. When one of the children asks, “Old woman, I hold in my hand a bird. Tell me whether it is living or dead,” the woman is silent for a long time before she finally speaks: “I don’t know,” she says. “I don’t know whether the bird you are holding is dead or alive, but what I do know is that it is in your hands.” The bird becomes a metaphor for language and the story becomes a profound meditation on the complex truths surrounding narrative — its dangers and its power. In an age where fiction is too often presented as fact, this timeless and exquisitely written lecture is a must-read.
Honorable Mention: The Sensualist by Daniel Torday
So much that is both beautiful and tragic is packed into this gem of a coming-of-age book set in Baltimore of the 1990s. The lives of two very different teenage boys become intertwined in this tale of love and class within a tight-knit Jewish community.