In 9th grade, I had a brief and intense love affair with the short story. The literature anthology my English class used had a great selection of stories—stories that would make anyone fall in love with the form. There was “The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W. Jacobs, “The Gift of the Magi” by O Henry, “The Interlopers” by Saki, and “The Necklace” by Guy de Maupassant. I loved these stories and read them over and over. I also got my hands on several more anthologies, many of them copies of old textbooks my school previous used, and so I also read and adored “Leaf by Niggle” by J.R.R Tolkein, “Eveline” by James Joyce, “The Destructors” by Graham Greene, “The Scarlet Ibis” by James Hurst, “The Black Cat” by Edgar Allen Poe, “Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Rocking Horse Winner” by D.H. Lawrence, and many others.
Like so many 9th grade love affairs, this one didn’t last. It’s not so much that I fell out of love. I just moved on to other things. For one thing, I discovered the novel and the full-length play. These (along with poems) because the primary forms taught in my literature classes, and they became the bulk of my reading diet. I haven’t avoided the short story entirely since that time. I’ve read a few wonderful collections, usually collections by a single author or on a single theme. But the short story and I have mostly remained ships passing in the night.
I’ve had a similar experience with the short essay, although the love affair was much later. In my mid-20s, I took a course in literary journalism and discovered the world of creative nonfiction (i.e., nonfiction that uses many of the same techniques used in fiction—pacing, character, detail, and so on). I read several collections—some of these were essays by multiple writers on a single theme (I remember specifically one on spiritual writing); some were collections by a single author (Anne Lamott became a particular favorite); and others were collections from the Best American Essay series. I also made a point of reading the lengthy human-interest stories that appeared in newspapers and magazines; many of these stories were marvelous examples of short nonfiction. But then I moved on, and my nonfiction reading shifted to full-length memoirs and long journalistic investigations (some of which, quite frankly, would have been better off as articles).
I know a lot of people say they don’t like short fiction or nonfiction. That’s not the case with me. I do love reading short pieces. What I have trouble with is figuring out the best way to approach short works. Is it more fruitful to read straight through, as if I were reading a novel? Or to dole the stories out, reading only one a week?
When I read straight through, I often find that I don’t give each story much consideration as a single work. This is not much of a problem when all the works are by a single author, because the collection usually has some sort of overarching theme or style. And if an author’s voice doesn’t capture my imagination in the first story, I might find myself fully immersed by the third or fourth. But with anthologies by multiple authors, moving quickly from author to author means that I don’t give myself time to get used to each author’s voice or style.
But reading a story at a time has its drawbacks, too. I don’t like to have too many books on the go, for one thing. I tend to have a specific book for each location where I read—home, work, car (audio in the car of course, a reread at work, and the home book doubles as my “walking around” book that goes in my purse to read in waiting rooms, at restaurants, etc.). And then I usually have some sort of book project that I’m working through slowly. These days, that book is whatever my church book club is reading. More than that, and at least one book will end up falling completely off my (imaginary) nightstand.
I have considered doing a story a week and posting about it, as other bloggers have done with “Short Story Monday” at The Book Mine Set and “Essay Monday” at Evening All Afternoon”. But the idea of committing to reading and posting on a story a week (even if it’s a commitment only to myself) makes me feel stressed. With than in mind, Rob’s less-structured 100 Shots of Short Challenge might be more my speed, but if there’s no plan to it at all, it won’t get done. I’ll start a collection, read one or two stories, and then I won’t get back to it for six months, during which time I won’t be able to make myself put it back on the shelf, even though the sight of it sitting around will make me feel guilt about not reading it. (I am a guilt machine. It’s what I do.)
So I think, for me, the answer is making a point of getting some good collections and reading them straight through, despite the drawbacks. I’ve been gathering up collections for the last several months and will continue to do so. Right now, I’m mostly focusing on single-author collections, but I may snag some yearbooks or thematic collections if they catch my eye. I do enjoy short pieces—fiction and non—and I’m hoping that treating collections as “just another book” enable me to work them back into my reading diet.
Do you read many short stories or essays? What approach works best for you? Perhaps you have some system I haven’t thought of. And do you have any favorite story or essay writers or collections to recommend?
Notes from a Reading Life: July 26 to August 14
Between lacking inspiration, having guests, and going out of town, it’s been a while since my last reading update. The list is long!
- A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (audio). I can’t quite believe how much I loved this audiobook. It’s fabulous!
- Howards End by E.M. Forster. Quite possibly the most beautiful book I’ve ever read.
- The Holy Vote by Ray Suarez. Smart and generally even-handed book on politics and religion in the United States, but a little out-of-date.
- Four Past Midnight by Stephen King. King at his best and worst.
- A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories by Flannery O’Connor. A tremendous collection by one of my favorite short story writers.
- Star Island by Carl Hiasson. A comic novel that I gave up on after 125 pages. The comedy is too broad for my tastes, I think.
- Waiting for God by Simone Weil. An insightful collection of writings from a great thinker.
- Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose. What we can learn about writing from reading great writers.
- Godric by Frederick Buechner. A novel about Saint Godric of Finchale. For Amy’s August Faith and Fiction Saturday Roundtable. Discussion to come on the last Saturday in August.
- The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief by Francis S. Collins. The head of the Human Genome Project on science and faith. For my church’s book club.
- Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee (audio). My second Coetzee. Will I love this as much as Summertime?
- The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood. Rereading one of my favorite Atwood novels.
- The Professor’s House by Willa Cather. My first Cather. Thomas bought me a copy on our Daedalus Books visit several weeks ago and insisted I read it right away. Since I’ve been wanting to read Cather for years, I’m happy to oblige!
- Disturbing the Peace by Richard Yates. Yates is one of many writers whose work I want to read more of, so I snagged this when it showed up on Paperbackswap.
- Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored and Still Live Happily Ever After by Bella DePaulo. From Paperbackswap. I get frustrated by the stereotypes about single adults out there, and I came across this book when looking into Bachelor Girl (which I ultimately decided not to read).
- The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise by Julia Stuart. Won from LibraryThing’s Early Review program.
On My Radar
- Wish Her Safe at Home by Stephen Benatar. A woman gives up her job and moves into the house that she has inherited from a great-aunt and gets to know the people in her new surroundings. But then, signs of unreliability appear. I’ll let Simon at Stuck in a Book explain: “At first she seems unhinged in a jolly way – singing to herself, accosting everyone with sunny optimism and faux-schoolma’am whimsy. She meanders along the line between being consciously eccentric and… something less healthy. She gets increasingly bizarre, and it becomes clear that she is not sane.”
- Room by Emma Donaghue. Aarti’s review first got me curious about this book about a 5-year-old boy who has lived his entire life in a single room with his mother. Its inclusion on the Booker longlist and Kimbofo’s review convinced me that I must read this.
- A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin. I don’t read as much fantasy fiction as I used to, but I’m always interested in trying out the good stuff. Martin has been in the back of my mind for years, and thanks to this review at The Literary Omnivore, I’m adding A Game of Thrones, the first of his Song of Fire and Ice series, to my list.
- The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor. My recent reread of A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories reminded me how much I love O’Connor, so I’d like to read her letters and perhaps learn more about the thought process behind her work.
- The Obscure Logic of the Heart by Priya Basil. The story of a star-crossed romance between a young Muslim woman and young nonreligious Kenyan man. Litlove at Tales from the Reading Room says, “I absolutely loved it, one of the best reads so far this year.”
- Hey Waitress and Other Stories by Helen Potrebenko. A collection of stories about women and workers of all kinds by a Canadian Ukranian author. Melwyk at The Indextrous Reader says, ” I was intrigued and inspired by her fresh voice and her stalwart committment to saying what she means. Very interesting writing that anyone with a political interest would find engaging,”
- The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Girard. Like Jenny, I have an inexplicable fascination with cold-weather disasters, although in my case, they’re usually about mountaineering (lots of Everest documentaries). I’d like to broaden my fixation a bit, and I love a first-person account. Jenny says that this account of an Antarctic expedition is a “huge, amazing, riveting memoir about a tragedy and a triumph.”
- The Marquise of O by Heinrich von Kleist. A novella recommended in Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer.
- Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by Z. Z. Packer. A story collection recommended in Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer.