When I teach a literature class to undergraduates, one of my most important tasks is to help my students relearn how to read in the age of distraction. I assign them an exercise: Set a timer for 20 minutes and dive into a book, no phone in sight, and don’t stop before the alarm goes off.
They frequently tell me that time moves differently when they do this. The first few minutes drag, and the exercise feels totally impossible and dull, but as they keep sitting and reading, they begin to focus on the world inside the pages in front of them. By the end, they’re usually surprised by the timer ringing, and hungry to keep reading.
My students aren’t the only ones who benefit from this exercise, and the activity works with any book. But this list will offer you a head start. The seven titles below self-consciously aim to grab their reader’s attention, whether through form or content.
Each will pull you into reading in a different way: Some are brief and succinct; others are long and sprawling. Some use the second person to directly address the reader; others dive deeply into one subject and invite you along. But what they all have in common is their ability to refresh your powers of observation and make you see the real world in a new manner by the end.
1 Mrs. Caliban, by Rachel Ingalls
The first book I recommend to anyone in a reading slump is Mrs. Caliban, a novella that’s less than 150 pages, with a fascinating plot and quick pacing. Written in 1982 but reissued in 2017, Mrs. Caliban follows Dorothy, a lonely 1950s-style housewife, who meets Larry, an amphibious sea creature who looks almost exactly like a man, just with green skin and webbed hands and feet.
Larry finds refuge from his scientist captors in Dorothy’s house, and the two have an oddly romantic affair right under her husband, Fred’s, nose. Dorothy and Fred are “too unhappy to get a divorce,” so Larry is actually a welcome guest who offers Dorothy not only exotic tales about an underwater world, but also a listening ear for her struggles as a housewife.
People (including my students) have speculated that Guillermo del Toro’s film The Shape of Water is loosely based on Mrs. Caliban, which makes sense—Ingalls’s writing is hypnotic and cinematic, and Mrs. Caliban is the kind of book you can read in one sitting: It captures your attention like a blockbuster.
2. The Fifth Season, by N. K. Jemisin
The end of The Fifth Season has my favorite section of any speculative-fiction or fantasy novel: a huge glossary of terms such as stone eaters, commless, and orogene that appears after the plot stops, giving the reader a hand in interpreting the wildly unconventional world of the book.
And it’s helpful here, because the complex, intricate story takes place on a supercontinent called the Stillness that is on the verge of its regular apocalypse, known as the “fifth season,” a period of catastrophic climate change. “Orogenes,” who can use thermal energy to create seismic events, are considered dangerous people, and most are in hiding, shunned from society.
Jemisin’s main character, Essun, is one of them, hiding her true identity as she works as a teacher in her village. She returns home one day to find that her husband has murdered her son and kidnapped her daughter—both of whom inherited her powers.
She must journey to save her daughter, accompanied by a mysterious child, while the world around her crumbles. After reading a few chapters of The Fifth Season, you’ll be immersed in this new world and its intricacies, enraptured by the ways this society’s structures shed light on the worst realities of our own.
3. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, by Italo Calvino
A story that has an experimental or mysterious structure turns you into a detective, trying to figure out not just what happened, but also why the writing is the way it is.
To me, the most delightful work in this vein is If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, by Italo Calvino, a book about someone called the Reader and addressed as “you,” who is constantly undercut in his attempt to read a novel called If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, by Italo Calvino.
Right away, the Reader finds that his copy has been misprinted, bound with another novel, which he then buys—but he only gets so far into his second choice before that one is interrupted too. Each novel he picks up is somehow confiscated, unfinished, missing, or full of mistakes.
But as the Reader picks up story after story, never able to finish, he meets his female counterpart, Ludmilla, who is trying to read the same titles. The loops of their impossible journey are postmodern, but the tone isn’t abstract or cerebral—it’s funny and sweet.
The metafiction of Calvino’s novel, literally addressed to “you,” dramatizes the difficulty of paying attention and finding just the right book. Ironically, it’s totally easy to read, as the Reader’s choices flip from romance to thriller to realist novel, all interwoven with one man’s journey to find his love.
4. Her Body and Other Parties, by Carmen Maria Machado
Short-story collections can deploy a variety of tones and styles that most novels can’t—each story can be totally unique. Her Body and Other Parties has such an unbelievable range, trafficking in the funny, the bizarre, the unreal, and the haunting, that any reader could find something arresting in it.
Machado reimagines the tale of the girl with the green ribbon around her neck right alongside a novella, “Especially Heinous,” in which the characters of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit contend with ghosts and doppelgängers. Even when she’s riffing on episodes of TV that the audience is familiar with, Machado makes the known world look stranger; as a result, supernatural occurrences begin to seem more and more logical.
In another story, “Inventory,” a woman lists all of her sexual experiences while the world is slowly consumed by a pandemic.
Her nostalgia for the way things used to be morphs into horror at what the world has become—and her lists, on the surface recalling the past but really narrating the present, become a way to cope with the uncertainty each day brings. Likewise, each story in Her Body and Other Parties does many things at once, every genre bent and every first impression unreliable, always fresh and also frightening.
5. Gathering Moss, by Robin Wall Kimmerer
Paying attention is not the topic but the mode of Kimmerer’s first book, Gathering Moss. Whereas her 2013 collection, Braiding Sweetgrass, delves into the many overlaps between Indigenous and scientific knowledge systems, here Kimmerer is deeply focused on just one organism: moss. Over a series of short personal essays, she peers at the tiny world of moss and what it can teach us.
Moss can give us metaphors for our life, help us understand our relationships, and show us the way tiny things order the larger world, she argues. Relying on her background as a scientist and an Indigenous scholar, she shows us how rich, how deserving of respect, and how shockingly beautiful the minuscule world really is.
Kimmerer writes about looking up from her microscope after examining moss and being “taken aback at the plainness of the ordinary world, the drab and predictable shapes.” Kimmerer’s personal style instills variety: Each essay provides new information not only about the organisms she’s observing, but also about her many roles within houses, laboratories, and communities. By the end, she has inspired readers to see just as she does, with intimate focus on the smallest parts of life.