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10 great books and their 10 best chapters: The perfect way to while away an afternoon

From The Lord of the Rings to The Green Road via To Kill a Mockingbird, The Secret History and more, you can read each incredible chapter in a single sitting

Few pleasures are as comforting as rereading your favourite book. But sometimes it’s hard to make the time, especially when there are so many brilliant books you haven’t even read once. One approach is instead to pick a favourite chapter of a book you have already read. It’s a perfect way to spend a weekend afternoon and it comes without the pressure of feeling you have to finish the whole book. Here are 10 to get you started.

The Lord of the Rings, by JRR Tolkien

Chapter to read: Helm’s Deep

If you read Helm’s Deep as a child, chances are it blew your mind so severely that your brain leaked out of your ears and your eyeballs plopped out of your skull. This was the moment you realised books could be anything. And they could show you anything. The battle of Helm’s Deep played out in your mind as vividly as a film. (This is, in fact, the secret behind the success of Peter Jackson’s screen adaptations: he brilliantly showed us scenes that have been playing in our minds for years.) By this point in the book Tolkien has a lot of plates spinning, but here the focus is on an intense battle between Saruman’s forces and the armies of Rohan, in an ancient fortification hemmed in by mountains. It’s action on an epic scale, but still the best bits are Legolas and Gimli going on an orc-killing rampage.

Sea of Tranquility, by Emily St John Mandel

Chapter to read: Part 1 – Remittance/1912

An intimate and at times profoundly moving sci-fi drama, Sea of Tranquility succeeds where most other time-travel stories fail: it actually makes sense. More often than not stories dealing with time travel tie themselves up in such narrative knots you’re either left completely confused or simply stop caring. Mandel uses time travel as a lens through which we can examine our mortality and collective memory. It’s a short book spanning hundreds of years and various timelines; that the story never loses focus is in itself a minor miracle. In the first curious chapter (really a series of mini-chapters) we meet a feckless English gentleman who has a strange experience in the wilds of Canada.

The Plot Against America, by Philip Roth

Chapter to read: Loudmouth Jew

The Plot Against America was well received when it was first published in 2004, but it has since become a relic of astonishing prescience. In this all-too-real alternate history, Philip Roth imagines it is the isolationist and anti-Semite Charles A Lindbergh, not Franklin D Roosevelt, who is elected president of the United States in 1940. Striking a deal with Hitler to stay out of the war, the US slides (through the eyes of the seven-year-old Roth) inexorably towards authoritarianism. In this chapter the Roth family takes a long-saved-for holiday to Washington, DC, and see the way that bigots are inevitably emboldened by the rhetoric of hateful leaders. An enraging, brilliant piece of writing anchored by the furious indignation of one of the best fathers in modern literature.


To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

Chapter to read: Chapter 15

Speaking of great literary dads, Atticus Finch might be the one many of us think of first. Of all his upstanding qualities, it’s probably his sense of fairness that appeals to us most. A just world is a fair one, and it’s this depressingly unattainable ideal he strives for. In chapter 15 we see him at his best and bravest. Awaiting trial, Tom Robinson has been moved to the county jail, and rumours of a lynch mob begin to circulate. Atticus gets in his car and sits guard outside the cell, making sure no harm comes to the prisoner. Of course, Jem, Scout and Dill sneak out to follow him. When the lynch mob rolls up in the middle of the night, the tension and threat of violence perfectly encapsulate the contrast between a child’s view of the world and the harsh, grown-up reality.

Other Minds, by Peter Godfrey-Smith

Chapter to read: Chapter 2 – A History of Animals

Have you ever tried to think about an issue or subject but quickly realise you can’t fully understand it without first understanding what came before? It usually happens with history: you start off reading about Caesar’s assassination and before you know it you’re knee-deep in the Gracchi agrarian reforms. The question arises again and again: how far do you go back? For Peter Godfrey-Smith the answer is obvious: you go back to the beginning. In the second chapter of his fascinating study of the octopus, he brings us on a dizzying and thrilling journey of consciousness and nervous systems, from single-celled organisms up to the fateful split in the evolutionary tree before the Cambrian Age. It sounds complicated, but it’s all explained clearly and thoughtfully.

The Secret History, by Donna Tartt

Chapter to read: Prologue

All great books have great opening chapters, but few pull you in as effectively has the prologue of Donna Tartt’s Ivy League murder mystery The Secret History. Describing it as a murder mystery might sound strange – in these opening pages we learn who died and who did it. But the thrill of the following 600 pages is in discovering why. The prologue itself is only two pages, but it tells us everything we need to know. We learn about a murder disguised as a hiking accident, the largest manhunt in Vermont history, and the narrator’s culpability. It’s the perfect opening to a great book, and it ends with a declaration that compels us to keep reading: “I suppose at one time in my life I might have had any number of stories, but now there is no other. This is the only story I will ever be able to tell.”

The Green Road, by Anne Enright

Chapter to read: The Hungry Grass

The Green Road is rightly lauded as one of the great modern Irish novels, but it probably doesn’t get enough credit for how funny it is. Pick any page and you’ll find some dry observation or peculiarly Irish way of describing something. Take the way Anne Enright opens this chapter: “Rosaleen told Constance she did not want a present this year. She said it in a faint voice, meaning she would be dead soon so what was the point?” Or on the next page: “The cleaner was from Mongolia, a fact that made Constance slightly dizzy.” And then there’s the chaos of the Christmas shop. If you’ve ever had the misfortune of being in a supermarket on Christmas Eve, these pages will resonate painfully and deeply.

Ragtime, by EL Doctorow

Chapter to read: Chapter 23

Before it was first published in 1975, there were almost no books like Ragtime. And though it paved a new way for how we might look at our past, few books have done it quite as well since. In its original review, the New York Times called EL Doctorow’s book a “highly original experiment in historical fiction”, and it’s a description that still fits. Using short, direct sentences to describe a wide range of real and fictional characters, from Houdini to Freud, the novel is a kaleidoscopic look at the United States on the cusp of seismic change at the start of the 20th century. In chapter 23 a black musician in the New York Orchestra has his car vandalised, and when he complains to the police he himself is arrested. It’s a moment of galling injustice that highlights perfectly how the United States at the time liked to see itself and how it actually was.

Desperation, by Stephen King

Chapter to read: Highway 50 – In the House of the Wolf, the House of the Scorpion

Far from Stephen King’s best book, Desperation nonetheless opens with such an incredibly creepy chapter that it should be studied in creative-writing classes as a model of how to build tension. A well-to-do New York couple are travelling cross-country in a borrowed car when they’re pulled over on an isolated highway by a strange and very intimidating cop. What follows is a masterful tightening of the screw as the couple slowly realise they’re in a lot more trouble than they initially thought. One of King’s greatest strengths is making the banal seem terrifying, such as a red balloon in It, or a family pet in Cujo. Here, among many other unsettling little moments, he transforms a standard recital of the Miranda rights into a bone-chilling death threat.

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, by Anne Tyler

Chapter to read: Teaching the Cat to Yawn

There’s something very comforting in reading about a family from a different country, in a book written more than 30 years ago, and recognising your own. This is Anne Tyler’s gift: she doesn’t just tell us stories about families living in Baltimore; she tells us about stories families tell themselves. Every family has one, even if each person in that family remembers it in different ways. In Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant the Tull family’s story starts and ends with their father leaving, but it naturally affects each of the three children differently. The second chapter is a rich collage of childhood memories and an exploration of the traits that will follow each sibling into adult dysfunction: Cody’s jealous rage, Ezra’s kindness and Jenny’s compulsion to impress her mother.