Readers of my book The Madness of Art: Short Stories express mild embarassment when they meet me. They then admit they haven’t yet read the whole book, but have been busy. I’m hoping this is the only reason for their embarassment.
In reality, this embarassment is completely baseless. Short story collections, in most cases, are not meant to be read cover to cover over a short time. Most authors write stories so infequently it takes years to have enough material for a book. Why then should the reader be expected to read the books more hastily than they were written?
Short stories are simply meant to collect dust on shelves. I might read one story today then not return to the book for a full year, and in some cases it’s taken a decade for me to actually finish a collection. Other books on my shelves I’ll probably never read every portion of–I own an awful lot of Chekov, for example. Every once in a while though I’ll find a collection so captivating I end up reading every story in less than a year, and in some cases return to the stories again and again. Listed below are the collections that have collected the least dust on my shelves.
Dubliners, By James Joyce
I don’t know if I’d be a writer today if not for Dubliners, specifically the story Araby, which I read at just the right time in my life–I was old enough to appreciate it, and young enough to be moved by it. It wasn’t until five years after I discovered the book that I realized the stories followed an arc. The first story begins with childhood, then goes through every step in the average lifespan until concluding, appropriately, with a novella titled The Dead. In high school I wrote a dozen knock-offs of Dubliners-style stories, only to lose them somewhere in my attic. Let’s hope I never find them again. Just about every writer of literary fiction has tried to imitate Dubliners and failed. Luckily, my failures never saw the light of day (although I must apologize to the friends and teachers I forced my work on!).
Sixty Stories, By Donald Barthelme
The title Sixty Stories sounds more daunting than the book itself really is. Instead, Sixty Stories is one of the breeziest collections out there. Nearly every story is five pages or less, and each contain a good laugh or two. These are often puzzling, baffling stories. If James Joyce had tried writing Dubliners later in his career, I’ll bet some of his work would resemble what’s collected here. Donald Barthelme freely plays with language, throws out highly illogical stories, and manages to upend whatever expectations the reader may have about what literature is supposed to be. Every year I re-read huge swatches of this book. If you’re looking for something lighter in tone and actual weight, check out Donald Barthelme’s earlier collection 40 Stories.
The Girl With Curious Hair, By David Foster Wallace
The Girl With Curious Hair is the book that first introduced me to the work of the late great David Foster Wallace, or DFW as he’s known to his fans. Not only that, but it remains my favorite of his works. It’s not nearly as depressing as his later collection Oblivion, nor is it as unsparingly bleak as Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Instead, The Girl With Curious Hair seems to be DFW’s way of telling the world he can, and will, do everything. One story involves a love affair between Jeopardy contestants while another takes place entirely during a long journey to McDonald’s.
Collected Fictions, By Jorge Luis Borges
This isn’t just a collection of Jorge Luis Borges’ short stories… it’s a collection of his story collections. Again, like Sixty Stories, this sounds a lot more daunting than it really is. Collected Fictions includes every collection the much revered writer published in his long career, but once you accustom yourself to his dense prose style, you’ll find these tales are actually quite thrilling and compulsively readable. I read every story in less than 6 months, and to this day I’m constantly compelled to go back and read my favorites such as “Funes the Memorious” and “The House of Asterion.”
Are there any short story collections you’d recommend?