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About The Book

A delightful, entertaining guide to some of the best short novels of all time from a bestselling historian, author, and lifelong reader.

Fall back into the joys of literature with an extraordinary book for book lovers: a compulsively readable, deeply engaging list of great short novels. A journey into short fiction designed with our contemporary attention spans in mind, Great Short Books suggests fifty-eight excellent short novels, all easily readable in a week or less—a “baker’s dozen” approach to a fun, fascinating year of reading.

From hard-boiled fiction to magical realism, the 18th century to the present day, Great Short Books spans genres, cultures, countries, and time to present an enchanting and diverse selection of acclaimed and canonical novels. From works in translation like Yu Miri’s ​Tokyo Ueno Station and Marguerite Duras’s The Lover to popular, acclaimed authors like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Stephen King, this compilation is a celebration of classics from the historic to contemporary—plus a few bestsellers. Each entry includes the novel’s opening lines, a spoiler-free plot summary, a “why you should read it” section, and suggestions for what to read next.

Just like browsing in your favorite bookstore, this eclectic collection is a fun and practical book for any passionate reader hoping to broaden their collection—or anyone who wants to find an entertaining and effortless reentry into reading.


1. Agostino Agostino
— 1945 —

Alberto Moravia

New York: New York Review Books, 2014; translated from the Italian by Michael F. Moore; 102 pages
In the early days of summer, Agostino and his mother used to go out to sea every morning on a small rowboat typical of Mediterranean beaches known as a pattino. At first she brought a boatman along with them, but Agostino gave such clear signs of annoyance at the man’s presence that the oars were then turned over to him. He rowed with deep pleasure on the smooth, diaphanous, early-morning sea, and his mother, sitting in front of him, would speak to him softly, as joyful and serene as the sea and sky, as if he were a man rather than a thirteen-year-old boy.
“A man rather than a thirteen-year-old boy” sums it up. In this quintessential coming-of-age tale, the fatherless Agostino worships his well-to-do widowed mother, “a big and beautiful woman still in her prime.” In the casting game that readers play, it is easy to envision Sophia Loren or perhaps Penélope Cruz as this iconic figure: Madonna and object of desire.

Agostino proudly knows this: “All the bathers on the beach seemed to be watching, admiring his mother and envying him.”

But his pride and joy will soon disappear. When a tanned, dark-haired young man arrives on the scene, Agostino must accept being replaced as his mother’s boating companion. Jilted, Agostino joins a group of local boys—tough sons of boatmen and lifeguards—and their older leader, a Fagin-like character with six fingers on each hand.

Though repelled by these boys and their coarse ways, the effete Agostino is nonetheless irresistibly drawn to them, even as they snicker and force him to imagine what his mother and the young man might be doing on the boat.
Born Alberto Pincherle in Rome on November 28, 1907, Moravia—his pen name was linked to a family surname—became one of Europe’s most prominent twentieth-century writers. At his death in 1990, he was the most widely read Italian novelist and essayist of the century.

The son of a prosperous Jewish architect and painter and a Catholic princess, Moravia contracted tuberculosis at the age of eight and was bedridden for long stretches, spending two years in a sanatorium. Learning German, French, and English from governesses, he spent much of his solitude reading, devouring everything from Boccaccio to James Joyce.

“My education, my formal education that is, is practically nil,” Moravia once told an interviewer. “I have a grammar-school diploma, no more. Just nine years of schooling. I had to drop out because of tuberculosis of the bone. I spent, altogether, five years in bed with it, between the ages of nine and seventeen—till 1924.” By then, Mussolini had taken power in Italy.

Tuberculosis and Fascism, said Moravia, were the most important facts of his life. He began writing at the dawn of Fascist rule and in 1929 self-published a first novel, Gli indifferenti (The Time of Indifference), a story of moral decadence that became a sensation. Politically and sexually daring, his next two novels were censored or confiscated by the Fascists during the 1930s and placed on the Vatican’s Index of Forbidden Books.

In 1941, Moravia and his wife, the writer Elsa Morante, moved to the island of Capri, where he wrote Agostino in the space of a month. Rejected by Fascist censors, it went unpublished. When Moravia learned his name was on a list of subversives, he and Morante fled to the mountains near Fondi, south of Rome.

After Rome’s liberation in 1944, the couple returned to the city and Agostino was published in 1945. Moravia’s international reputation grew with a subsequent book, La Romana (1947), a provocative story of a prostitute entangled with the Fascists. Later translated as The Woman of Rome, it sold more than 1 million copies in the United States.

Moravia’s star continued to rise with Il conformista (The Conformist, 1951), his third novel. It told of a sadistic man who becomes a Fascist assassin while concealing his sexual orientation. A story collection, I racconti (Stories), won Italy’s prestigious Strega Prize in 1952. A few years later, Elsa Morante also won the Strega for L’isola di Arturo (Arturo’s Island, 1957). The couple separated in 1961 but never formally divorced.

Moravia’s fame grew as his books, including Agostino, were adapted to the screen in Italy and abroad. Based on his time in hiding, La ciociara was published in 1957 and filmed under its English title, Two Women, by director Vittorio De Sica; Sophia Loren won an Academy Award for her role in the 1961 film. In 1970, The Conformist was adapted and filmed by director Bernardo Bertolucci.

Nominated for the Nobel Prize fifteen times, Moravia never won. He continued to write well into the 1970s and 1980s, but his later works never equaled the earlier acclaim. In 1990, he was found dead, at age eighty-two, of an apparent heart attack in his Rome apartment.
A classic coming-of-age story, Agostino is both painful and candid. It peels back the moment when a young boy is forced—quite literally—to look at his mother, and all women, in a new light. “Like many a forlorn poet, the narrator suffers the afflictions of unrequited love,” translator Michael F. Moore wrote, “but the object of his affection, scandalously, is his mother. Rather than seek to elevate her, like Petrarch’s Laura, he is intent on debasing her, repeating like a mantra, ‘She’s only a woman.’?”

I discovered the book after reading The Conformist and wished I had read Agostino first. Compressed into one hundred pages, Agostino’s story pulses with raw, erotic energy as it explores two fundamental themes of twentieth-century literature: social class and sexuality. Dispensing with academic and political jargon, Moravia delves into the realms of Marx and Freud, distilling philosophical ideas into a story of an affluent adolescent’s singular summer mixing with rough boys from the working class.

Moravia rejected the flowery style that dominated classical Italian fiction. His stark language and focus on social injustice and class distinctions herald what would become the signature of Italy’s postwar, neorealist filmmakers—Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica, and Luchino Visconti, among them—who depicted working-class Italy in bluntly unromantic terms.
In a career spanning six decades, Alberto Moravia was prolific. He wrote many novels, short stories, and essays on politics and literature. But an ideal follow-up to Agostino is The Conformist. In fact, the teenage Agostino hints in some ways at Marcello, the character who is the “Conformist” of the title.

Opening around 1920, before Mussolini’s rise to power, the novel follows Marcello from his troubled youth, in which he goes from killing lizards and a cat to committing a more serious crime. From childhood, Marcello desires to feel “normal,” which he equates with behaving in conformity with other people.

After the Fascists take power in 1922, Marcello’s quest leads him to a post in Mussolini’s regime and then to an assignment to assassinate a former professor who opposes the Fascists. Marcello’s craving to conform through unquestioned loyalty to a ruthless leader and murderous cause is very much a story of our time.

Also worthy of attention are Moravia’s postwar novels The Woman of Rome, a complex story of characters, including a prostitute, who must deal with the Fascist regime, and Two Women, a wrenching tale of the horrors endured by a widowed shopkeeper and her daughter in the last days of the war.

About The Author

Photograph © Nina Subin

Kenneth C. Davis has lived a life in books. He is the New York Times bestselling author of America’s Hidden History and Don’t Know Much About History, which gave rise to his series of books and audiobooks on a range of subjects, including mythology, the Bible, geography, and the Civil War. Davis’s work has appeared in The New York TimesThe Washington Post, and Smithsonian magazine, among other publications. He has appeared on national television and radio shows, including CBS This Morning, Today, and NPRHe lives in the West Village of New York City with his wife, Joann Davis, a former editor and writer.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (November 22, 2022)
  • Length: 448 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781982180034

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Raves and Reviews

“An exciting guide to all that the world of fiction has to offer in 58 short novels — from The Great Gatsby and Lord of the Flies to the contemporary fiction of Colson Whitehead and Leïla Slimani — that, ‘like a first date,’ offer pleasure and excitement without commitment.”
—The New York Times Book Review

“Anyone who’s eternally time-strapped will treasure Kenneth C. Davis’ Great Short Books. This nifty volume highlights 58 works of fiction chosen by Davis for their size (small) and impact (enormous). Davis delivers readerly insights and plenty of literary trivia in this handy guide. Outside of extra time, it’s the perfect gift for busy bibliophiles.”

“Fulfilling his book's title, Davis offers short, encouraging essays on 58 short books, from the obvious (Animal Farm) to the surprising (Leïla Slimani’s The Perfect Nanny).”
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel 

"Won’t your reader enjoy Great Short Books by Kenneth C. Davis this holiday? The answer is “yes”: this book is about books – specifically, more than fifty short novels by authors you know and don’t know. Wrap it up with a gift certificate to your favorite bookstore."
The Bookworm Sez

“Davis feels that novels of 200 pages or less often don't get the recognition they deserve, and this delightful book is the remedy ... Davis invites readers to venture out of their comfort zone to experience the joy of the short novel ... A must-purchase for public and school libraries."
Booklist, STARRED review

"Davis, who has written numerous books about literature and history, believes that books of less than 200 pages can be a good antidote to our troubled times and the stream of doom-laden news… his love of books and reading shines through… An entertaining journey with a fun, knowledgeable guide."

"Thoughtful ... Davis’s conversational tone makes him a great guide to these literary aperitifs. This is sure to leave book lovers with something new to add to their lists."
Publishers Weekly

Great Short Books is a fascinating, thoughtful, and inspiring guide to a marvelous form of literature: the short novel. You can dip into this book anywhere you like, but I found myself reading it cover-to-cover, delighting in discovering new works while also revisiting many of my favorites. Great Short Books is itself a great book—for those who are over-scheduled but want to expand their reading and for those who will simply delight in spending time with a passionate fellow reader who on every page reminds us why we need and love to read.”
—Will Schwalbe, New York Times bestselling author of The End of Your Life Book Club

“This is the book that you didn't know you really needed. I began digging into this book as soon as I got it, and it was such a delight to read beautiful prose, just a sip at a time, with Kenneth Davis' notes to give me context and help me more fully appreciate the stories. Keep this book near your bed or on your coffee table. It will be read and loved.”
—Celeste Headlee, journalist and author of We Need to Talk and Speaking of Race




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