Now that classes are underway, extra-curricular reading doesn’t easily fit into your schedule. However, these tiny gems pack a punch at the low cost of 24 hours. Take advantage of this two-for-one deal and liven up your bus ride with scorpions, horse kicks, and communism!
Animal Farm, George Orwell (112 pages)
Before picking up Orwell’s allegorical classic, ask yourself how you want to feel for the next few days. The unrelenting eeriness that scattered deception causes keeps you on guard and abuzz with the sensation of buildup without satisfaction. A slow burn, Animal Farm burrows under your skin and settles as it shows you how absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Armed with the art of the spin, Orwell’s greedy and exploitative pigs fuel corruption with wit. They steer both the titular Animal Farm and its presentation to create the unsettling illusion that you are in the same dark place as your barnyard neighbours. No fact kept from the animals is given to the reader, and as false memories are weaponized, you, like the goat and the horses and the hens, become increasingly confused and powerless to effect change. And that makes you afraid. And then it makes you mad.
As the ruling class begins to alter the past and Animal Farm descends into conditions indistinguishable from those which they threw off, rest assured that you, unlike your four-legged comrades, can check the records outside the world of the narrative—the book itself. You have Orwell’s written records, where the original Seven Commandments (with which the pigs earned the trust of their barnyard laborers) are not written on the side of a barn, easily changed in the middle of the night, but a place independent of their self-bestowed authority, a luxury not tangible for the non-elite.
Animal Farm is scary. As unfairness thrives and a caste system is made increasingly rigid, Orwell abandons his subdued narration to careen at a final scene only as chilling as it is unabashed. Even though all the clues are there, the ending comes seemingly inevitably, which, unfortunately, does not soften the blow.
The Pearl, John Steinbeck (87 pages)
Climbing into the fishing boat your grandfather left you and paddling out to find a pearl big enough to pay a crooked doctor to treat your infant son for a scorpion sting probably isn’t an experience you can write about for your college admissions essays, but you’ll be surprised at what an old Mexican folktale can teach you about improving one’s life through post-secondary education.
Illiterate and living in a dirt-floored hut, John Steinbeck’s protagonist, Kino, and his wife, Juana, labor under a deterministic plot to give their son a life inaccessible to them. No luck they find is immune to interlopers, be they human or beast, as “Luck […] brings bitter friends,” and the answer to the question “Who do you fear?” becomes “Everyone.” Steinbeck’s fleeting dream-like descriptions provide only sporadic relief as his characters search for something precious like a knife in a mollusk’s shell.
Set to a cacophony of “shrilling tree frogs,” a baby’s screams, and pounding iron ring knockers, Steinbeck’s The Pearl is inhospitable to quiet indignity as it pits ambition against privilege. As you enter a world of all-nighters and three-hour lectures, remember this work for its musings on the power of perseverance and what to do when circumstances interfere.