When was the last time you read a short story?

There’s a sense of anticipation whenever I open a new book, whether reading the first words of an unfamiliar author or settling in with the familiar style of a past favorite.  But a book is also a commitment, especially when taking on more serious, academic works.  And although I can count on both hands the number of books I have tossed aside before completing, I consider most of those to be failures. 

It’s a bit daunting for me as to start a book the thickness of our local Yellow Pages on some tangent of social or political history, because I know I have to be into it for the long haul.  Given the small amount of leisure time I devote to serious reading, I almost expect my attention to wander, my commitment challenged.

About a year ago, while perusing the bargain shelves at the local Barnes & Noble, I spied The New Granta Book of the American Short Story (Edited and introduced by Richard Ford) when something clicked …

I realized that I hadn’t read a short story since college, quite possibly since high school.  Why, I’m not quite sure.  But the prospect of picking up a read that would not turn into weeks of guilt-laden glances at the dust-covered novel on the coffee table was appealing.

Besides the lack of a long-term commitment, there are several advantages to picking up a collection of short stories.  For one thing, a collection of shorties presents a true box of literary chocolates.  Everyone can find something they like.  But if you don’t, you can take a bite and spit out the rest.  (Please pardon the visual!)  Little intense effort.  No sense of loss.  No guilt when you decide you would rather watch the Phillies game.

The New Granta is indeed the thickness of a phone book.  It contains an impressive 44 offerings from 44 authors.  Some as short as 1000 words; the longest about 30 pages.  I’ve read only 13 so far; enjoying the fast-paced story-telling between the longer novels and historical tomes on my lengthy reading list.  Whenever I read one of its entries, I scribble a short Yea or Nea to mark the storytellers I like.  

If you pick up Richard Ford’s New Granta, be sure to read the introduction.  Ford does an excellent job describing the similarities and differences of novels versus short stories.  He also explains how the concept of writer’s authority contributes to the way author and reader interact.

Short stories will turn observable qualities of life upside down.  They play tricks with space and time.  They are short on character development, and long on daring literary twists in an attempt to both capture your attention and tell the story in their willfully truncated allotment of words.  The biggest difference one would notice is the lack of dithering about that you come to expect from the characters of a voluminous novel.   

Recently I read one of Stephen King‘s collections of short stories, Just After Sunset.  In his foreword, King describes his short story writing experience as almost cathartic.  He finds that when he sits down to write them, they come out in bunches.  If you like King’s more suspenseful, less horror-filled offerings, you will really enjoy this collection of short works.

My favorites were a stretch of stories beginning with The Things They Left Behind.  This entry followed by Graduation  Day and ending with The New York Times at Special Bargain Rates, was an interesting, troubling and curious sequence involving New York City.  I won’t play spoiler here by giving away the reason why I felt this way.  I’ll leave it to you to decide for yourself.  The Cat From Hell is simply an interlude here, and more in line with the kind of gruesome horror for which King is renown. 

This Steven King collection disproved the Box of Chocolates Theory on short story collections in general.  I did not find one story I did not like or could not easily immerse myself.  The book proved well worth the price of admission. 

So if you haven’t picked up a short story since they forced you to read them in high school or college, take a chance.  You will like their concise, relatively uncomplicated nature.  And should you find one or two you don’t like, you won’t suffer that annoying sense of loss over failing at a long-term commitment!

2 thoughts on “When was the last time you read a short story?

  1. I enjoy short stories, I prefer personal narratives over fiction…lately I’ve been more at the level of long articles; I don’t know were the line is. A relative is the founder of a quarterly journal of memoir type writings, some are a dozen pages long, others are a dozen paragraphs, I find the different perspectives and experiences enlightening.
    Heck there’s a columnist in the local paper who will muse about his adopted granddaughter one day, cats the next, and the failures of Presidents on either side somewhat regularly..he had me in total agreement in his piece on loading/using dishwashers yesterday (http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2011/05/06/DD9B1JBTIK.DTL).

    One short story I recently read and absolutely loved was Road Dahl’s “Going Solo”, the author of ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ and ‘James and the Giant Peach’ was a total stud in the RAF in WWII.
    Find it, read it, (Mike, if you can’t get it, I’ll send you my copy)

    • Made me laugh, jon. I’ll read the dishwasher article next time I get the chance. Sounds right up my alley. But I’m on the hook for Mom’s Day dinner today. Doing the old, reliable shrimp scampi.

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