If economists came up with a thrills-per-page index for the written word, I suspect that they would find that short stories offer one of the best literary bangs for your buck, second only perhaps to (very good) poems. Short stories are like the punk rock of prose — a great story writer can strip away all of the frills and blow away readers with the essential elements of a great story in just a few short pages.
George Saunders wrote recently that “Short stories are the deep, encoded crystallizations of all human knowledge. They are rarefied, dense meaning machines, shedding light on the most pressing of life’s dilemmas.” (Did I mention that short-stories are unpretentious? That quote comes not from the New Yorker or Paris Review but rather O Magazine, in an imagined conversation with a space alien. If that’s not relatable I don’t know what is.)
Short stories are perfect for times when your attention is likely to be diverted but you still want that gut-punch (in a good way) feeling that a good read leaves you with, which is why I’m always puzzled when I see people hauling gigantic books to the pool, beach, and park in the summertime. I love an aspirational reading project as much as the next person, but why on Earth would you choose to slog through a giant brick of a novel when there are street fairs to go to, spray parks to splash in, movies and music to listen to in parks, and grass that just won’ t stop growing? Infinite Summer should happen in the winter when there’s nothing else to do.
I’ve gone on too long already. Let’s get to the recommendations:
If you want to have your socks knocked off by sheer off-the-wall virtuosity, two collections that I have read recently come to mind:
- Lorrie Moore’s Self Help is packed with funny and poignant meditations on the absurd quality life can take on upon close observation. These stories of divorce, death, and relationships (I know, sounds hilarious, right?) feel very fresh even though they were written 25 years ago. Moore’s writing is also technically interesting, especially her frequent use of second-person narrative. It often feels like she’s giving you instructions for sinking slowly into oblivion. Also available as an eBook.
- Each of Rebecca Lee’s stories that are collected in Bobcat and Other Stories may leave you feeling like you just finished a good novel. That is because Lee packs an incredible amount of detail and emotion into the small space of her stories, most of which detail some major life transition for the her characters. In just the same way you might remember what you were having for dinner when your parents told you they were getting divorced, Lee as narrator drops little observations about food, decor, or body language in her stories. Also available as an eBook.
I also have a couple of old favorites that may not be on your radar but are highly recommended:
- Barry Hannah is, in my opinion, criminally under-read these days. The guy was a master of dropping the reader right into the middle of the bizarre lives of his characters (typically southern troublemakers) and somehow suggesting enough history and setting that it all totally makes sense. These stories (try Airships first) are hilarious, raucous, sad, and filled with a great acid-tinted social commentary reminiscent of Terry Southern and Hunter S. Thompson at his best. These stories have a short-shorted, mustachioed, Aviator-glasses-clad swagger that would feel right at home in the hipster era.
- The virtues of Jon Raymond’s Livability have already been praised in these pages, and I can’t make a better plea to check out this book than Tara did except to say that it’s still a great book filled with big trees, sad people, and bad weather, and is still somehow uplifting to read. The movies that brought me to the book, Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy (based on the story “Train Choir”), are also fantastic.
If none of those are doing it for you, consider Saunders’ recommendations from the O article, which are meant to be read by an alien from outer space who needs a crash course in humanity (links are to electronic copies if available):
- Chekhov’s “Lady with the Dog” and “The Schoolmistress” (aka “On the Cart”). Both of these are in the public domain.
- Hemingway’s “Three Day Blow.”
- Isaac Babel’s “In the Basement.”
- Jhumpa Lahiri’s “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine.“
- Tillie Olsen’s “I Stand Here Ironing.“
- Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilych.”
- Alice Munro’s “Dance of the Happy Shades.”
- Mary Gordon’s “The Deacon.”
- Raymond Carver’s “A Small, Good Thing.”
Saunders is humble enough to exclude his own work, but he’s not such a bad writer himself.
Don’t over commit this summer! Enjoy these fun-sized reads.
-Dan, whose attention span in the summer sometimes gets bad enough that the back of the cereal box is all I can get through