Short can be good, even great, when it comes to books

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDAugust 31, 2012 

Students are heading back to school and there's a touch of autumn in the morning air. More and more, time seems to fly by.

Then toss in mobile phones ringing and buzzing, tweets a'tweeting, and round-the-clock news even when there's not much news going on, and life can feel a bit too hectic.

I'm a book reader and proud of it, but sometimes even I blanch at the prospect of reading one 400 pages long, or longer, no matter how tempting the topic. I'm not sure the book will be worth the time and effort.

Thankfully, over the years I've stumbled across short books so enjoyable that I've kept them and reread them, sometimes several times. Here are six of them - all nonfiction and all less than 200 pages - that I heartily recommend to readers in this go-go world.

- "Thermal Delight in Architecture" by Lisa Heschong. 78 pages. OK, it's more of a long essay than a short book, but its ideas loom large. Heschong reminds us that people have a "thermal sense" that, like other senses, brightens life best when it's exercised. Think back to the time you sat in a hot sauna and then jumped into a snowbank, or spent a cold day on the slopes and then warmed up before a fire. Good memories, right? Both are examples of putting your thermal sense through its paces. Heschong says architecture that gives people similar control over their thermal environment is not only life-affirming, it can also save money and energy compared to central heating and air conditioning.

- "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" by Jean-Dominique Bauby. 132 pages. Bauby was an editor at Elle, the French fashion magazine. Life was good, until a stroke left his active mind locked inside an immobile body. He wrote his memoir of his "locked-in" life by blinking out words, one letter at a time, while a hospital aide read the alphabet aloud, over and over and over. Most amazing, Bauby's courage and grace transcend the anger and despair of his condition. P.S.: There's a wonderful movie by the same name, starring Mathieu Amalric.

- "The Wild Braid" by Stanley Kunitz with Genine Lentine. 144 pages. Kunitz was a beloved poet who spent decades tending his garden in Provincetown, Mass. "The Wild Braid" weaves his thoughts about gardening, and thus about life, among several of his poems and many lovely color photographs. You might not become a poet or a gardener after reading it. But you might.

- "The Tao of Pooh" by Benjamin Hoff. 158 pages. I generally avoid books with "Tao" in the title, but this is an exception. Hoff entertainingly weaves A.A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh characters and stories into his primer on the tenants of Taoism. It leaves you wondering if Milne sat around pondering the values of simplicity, humility and peaceful action.

- "700 Sundays" by Billy Crystal. 184 pages. Yes, that Billy Crystal. The title refers to the Sundays that Crystal's father, who worked two jobs to pay the bills, kept free to spend time with family. The "700" refers to the number of Sundays that Billy enjoyed before his dad's heart attack left Billy fatherless at age 15. The book details the Crystal family's important connection to the jazz and music scene in New York City, and, as you would expect, includes plenty of humor along with the touching memories.

- "Joe Gould's Secret" by Joseph Mitchell. 186 pages. This book is made up of two articles that Mitchell wrote for The New Yorker 22 years apart. The first part profiles Gould, an educated, eccentric character who lived hand-to-mouth in Greenwich Village while, he said, he was gathering offhand conversations for his massive book, "An Oral History of Our Time." The second part reveals the full story behind Gould's secret. P.S.: There's a wonderful movie by the same name, starring Ian Holm and Stanley Tucci. I detect a trend.

Reach DEAN KAHN at dean.kahn@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2291.

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