Over the years, travelling by train to Paris and London, I've seen dozens of readers tucking into George Orwell's "Down and Out in Paris and London". It's just short enough to be able to finish if read uninterrupted on a round trip journey from one capital to another. And, because it's based on real places (which are easy enough to locate), you're motivated to read quickly so that if you pass through any of the areas described you can do some amateur forensic sleuthing, if you like.
This book is neither straight journalism nor high literature but a combination of the two. Journalism's mandate is to tell, as clearly as possible, what happened, how, where, to whom and if possible, why. Style serves content. Literature is free to examine an event or a situation, to get at the truth too, but the rules regarding form and content are completely different. "Down and Out" does both brilliantly.
Orwell himself admitted that while the events and people he described were real enough, he took liberties with the facts by rearranging the sequence of events, sanitizing the dialogue and changing or omitting names of people or places. In this way, publishers, censors and young Orwell's fellow 'plongeurs'' concerns could be satisfied. This document - memoir viewed through socialist sensibilities, wrapped up in fine description is a classic in that strange genre of writing that others like Hemingway also excelled at.
Read the opening scene - it will hook you:
"The rue du Coq d'Or, Paris, seven in the morning. A succession of furious, choking yells from the street. Madame Monce, who kept the little hotel opposite mine, had come out on to the pavement to address a lodger on the third floor. Her bare feet were stuck into sabots and her grey hair was streaming down.
MADAME MONCE: 'Salope! Salope! How many times have I told you to not squash bugs on the wallpaper? Do you think you've bought the hotel, eh? Why can't you throw them out the window like everyone else? Putain! Salope!'
THE WOMAN ON THE THIRD FLOOR: 'Vache!'
Thereupon a whole variegated chorus of yells, as windows were flung open on every side and half the street joined in the quarrel. They shut up abruptly ten minutes later, when a squadron of calvary rode past and people stopped shouting to look at them.
I sketch this scene just to convey something of the spirit of the rue du Coq d'Or. Not that quarrels were the only thing that happened there - but still, we seldom got through the morning without at least one outburst of this description. Quarrels, and the desolate cries of street hawkers, and the shouts of children chasing orange-peel over cobbles, and at night loud singing and the sour reek of the refuse-carts, made up the atmosphere of the street."