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Reading lists

Short books to read when you’re overwhelmed

Finding everything a bit much? We've found these books can help.

When life gets overwhelming, books can help - especially when they’re low in pagination and big on impact. Here are the best books for those short on time, short on energy, short on enthusiasm – or all three.


Muriel Spark’s best-known work was originally published in The New Yorker, which is generally a fairly sure start for short fiction. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie introduces one of fiction’s most memorable female characters: a school teacher supposedly “in her prime” who has a special connection with the female students in her charge. Time moves swiftly in this novella, as the students grow up but Miss Brodie remains somehow stuck. It’s a book full of recognisable, keenly realised characters.

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho (1988) (208 pages)

Blending fable, folklore and magical realism, Paulo Coelho’s international phenomenon is more than 30 years old – and yet its escapist message is possibly more resonant than ever. When a young Andalusian shepherd heads to Egypt, his quest is interrupted by the encounters he makes on the way. Little does he realise that it is his journey, rather than the destination, that is so crucial to the most important lesson of his life. Inspiring and wise, The Alchemist is a short story that will linger for a long time.

It’s amazing what a good laugh can do in terms of stress-relief. Fortunately, Elizabeth McCracken’s critically acclaimed short story collection isn’t short of humour. Don’t be put off by the page count; The Souvenir Museum is split up into several witty and fundamentally human short stories that will entertainingly transport you out of whatever malaise you might be feeling and into New Year’s Eve parties, Scottish islands and waterparks. 

Read more: Elizabeth’s recommendations for other brilliant short story collections: The best short story collections to read this summer

Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson (2020) (160 pages)

Some love stories are all the more heart-wrenching for their brevity. Caleb Azumah Nelson’s bestselling, Costa award-winning debut novel is the kind you’ll want to devour in one gulp, following the on-off romance and deep feeling of his two unnamed central characters. Nelson crams a lot into Open Water – it's a meditation on race and masculinity, and a love letter to a particular corner of South London too, full like a warm bath with fantastic pop cultural references. Reading it feels like sinking into one.  

Turbulence by David Szalay (2018) (144 pages)

A cleverly structured novel that starts with someone’s fear of flying may not sound like a barrel of soothing laughs but Booker Prize-shortlisted author Szalay’s small and immaculate Turbulence is likely to lift you up and away. This novel combines the narratives of 12 people on a plane whose lives collide in unlikely ways. Not only is Szalay’s writing efficiently, sparsely beautiful, but his characters and their lives are all the more compelling for their scant detail. The result is a portrait of modern life that will make you see the world differently.

Lady Susan by Jane Austen (1817) (128 pages)

When modern life gets too much, allow yourself to be whisked back into seemingly simpler times: of ballrooms, and social niceties, and stormy walks in nature. Most of Jane Austen’s books will supply this, but for a quick, particularly gossipy hit, check out Lady Susan. Something of an Austen deep-cut, this short story about deceitful widows and hasty marriages is ticklish and pleasingly distracting from more keenly felt worries. 

The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse: The Animated Story by Charlie Mackesy (2022) (192 pages)

Somewhere between gentle self-help and whimsical fable, Charlie Mackesy’s 2019 book The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse has spent the past three years holding readers’ hands through grief, trauma and, sometimes, just a plain old bad day. Now, the bookish balm is being adapted into The Animated Story, a slightly longer, more storybook-style edition that brings Mackesy’s beloved characters to a wider audience – and prepares readers young and old for the animated version set to hit the telly this Christmas. Reading its story – about a boy’s metaphorical search for home, and how he finds it – is a perfect antidote to stress, during the holidays or whenever overwhelm sets in.

A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood (1964) (176 pages)

If things are really getting you down, it’s not always particularly helpful to try and ignore how they’re making you feel. Christopher Isherwood’s deft little novel offers permission to reflect on what’s happening in your life by way of George, a despondent, English university professor based in San Francisco. A Single Man unfolds over just the one day, but just those few hours are enough for him to have an encounter that helps him to see his life differently. Perhaps the book will help you to, as well.


Nudging near the 300-page mark, Burkeman’s 'have-you-read-it' guide to how to actually spend your time is on the longer side. But trust us: you can read it in chunks, and besides, you won’t want to. Burkeman writes with such fluency and confidence that you’ll find yourself 80 pages in without once reaching for your phone for a quick doom-scroll. Even better, you’ll end up with useful takeaways about approaching life that will genuinely change how you think about and spend your time; not a bad way to tackle some of that looming whelm. 

Lessons in Stoicism by John Sellars (2020) (96 pages) 

It’s hardly surprising that more people have been looking back to the work of the Stoics in recent years. Between political upheaval, the pandemic and climate change, there are plenty of reasons for us to turn to these ancient sages for a new way of processing what’s happening. But while diving into Marcus Aurelius might feel a challenge, John Sellars’ accessible guide will offer a consoling and inspiring appetiser to how to live a more philosophical – and more grounded – life. 

When I Dare to Be Powerful by Audre Lorde (2020) (128 pages)

Rage can be galvanising at the best of times, but it can be particularly useful when things feel hopeless. The best of Audre Lorde’s passion and searingly precise prose can be found in this series of pieces. When I Dare to Be Powerful offers insight into ideas of female strength and solidarity, and provides a necessary cry to speak out against those who seek to silence anyone seen as 'other'.

Our climate crisis is arguably the most significant challenge facing humanity, and it can feel enormous, as just one person, to know what to do about it. Greta Thunberg has written several useful, practical and thought-provoking books on the most urgent issue of our time, but her first – a publication of one of her first firebrand speeches – is a great pick-me-up to inform, galvanise, and inspire you. With knowledge, you can act, and action can be powerful. 

Practical non-fiction

This is a book that does what it says on the tin: written by mental health advocate and influencer Grace Victory, How to Calm It challenges the typical teachings about mindfulness and takes readers a practical step further into how we can deal with the causes, rather than the symptoms, of poor mental health. Through creative exercises and tailored tips, How To Calm It helps you understand and process what is happening inside our heads and bodies, and is there for you to dip into as and when you’re ready to.

Depending on how you spend your screen time, you may know Dr Julie Smith from TikTok, where the clinical psychologist and online educator encouraged millions to understand their brains better during lockdown. These eye-opening lessons about mental health are at the heart of Why Has Nobody Told Me This Before?, which is full of easy, accessible and attitude-shifting clinical advice for whenever you want to dive in. 

5 Minute Therapy by Sarah Crosby (2020) (288 pages)

It’s amazing what can be achieved in just a few minutes. Here, psychotherapist Sarah Crosby boils down the essence of therapy into a short, easy guide. Big questions are tackled in just a few pages: if you’ve ever found yourself wondering who you are at your core, or how you can access that core, 5 Minute Therapy offers a way in for the uninitiated. 


Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke continues to endure nearly a century after his death for his wisdom, insight and – crucially – his brevity! As The Atlantic says, “Rilke might be a balm for exasperated souls”. Letters to a Young Poet is as the title would suggest: 10 letters between the poet and a 19-year-old officer cadet. What unfolds between them is wisdom, advice and solace that you'll relate to, wherever you are in life.

The Lost Spells by Robert MacFarlane and Jackie Kay (2020) (240 pages)

Robert MacFarlane and Jackie Kay have been bringing little-known words and beautiful images to new generations ever since the release of The Lost Words in 2017. The Lost Spells takes that concept – of celebrating a vocabulary built around nature – into the realm of poetry and spells. Melismatic, mesmerising and beautiful, this pocket-sized book is perfect for whisking you away on an overwhelming day.

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