On Reading Short Story Collections

The novel demands that we read in a very particular way: from beginning to end, or from left to right. The nineteenth century’s dominant art form also reminds us that our lives run in a continuous line that has a clear beginning, middle, and end; at least, that is how we have understood the spacio-temporal dynamics of human existence. Our lives begin with birth and end with death, but it’s really what’s in between that makes the story. Storytelling is a particular trait of human beings, and without it we would have no history, nor would we have a way to make sense of what it means to be human.

The short story collection, on the other hand, lends itself to various ways of reading. Of course, one can read short story collections from the first story through to the last, and doubtless some readers do. However, short story collections also offer more freedom than the novel. The reader can take stories in order, as mentioned, or in any order he or she wishes. She can read one story a night, perhaps before bed, or in the morning over coffee and cereal. She can read the stories from last to first, from the middle out, or by skipping every other one. The combinations are endless.

The charm of the short story collection is its accessibility and brevity. Unlike the novel, the short story does not demand quite as much of a commitment. E. M. Forester tells us that the novel is at least 50,000 words in length. The novella would be between about 12,000 and 50,000 words, making the short story anything under 12,000 words. A short story should take as much time to read as it would to casually enjoy a latte and a cigarette on a rainy Saturday afternoon.

In Robert Darnton’s brilliant The Case for Books, he mentions two ways of reading: sequentially and segmentally. Sequential reading is our traditional way of reading from beginning to end as dictated by the novel, and detective fiction in particular. Alternatively, segmental reading allows the reader to pick and choose sections to read without sacrificing the ability to follow the storyline. While some novels do lend themselves to segmental reading (Roberto Bolano’s 2666, for example), most dictate that we read in a “proper” order.

The short story collection is a wonderful experience for our contemporary lives that have become, with the dominance of social media, much more segmented and seemingly disjointed. We can begin reading at random, put our book down, and take it up again months or even years later. The short story as form may now be more relevant than ever given the decreased attention span of humans. Why not spend some time reading?

Some short story collections that have been particularly influential in my life:

The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway
Collected Stories by William Faulkner
The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov
The Stories of Paul Bowles
Collected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges
Seven Gothic Tales by Isak Dinesen
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Darkness by Dacia Maraini
The Art of Living by John Gardner
Complete Tales by Edgar Allan Poe
While the Women are Sleeping by Javier Marias
A Night in the Cemetery and Other Stories by Anton Chekhov
Last Evenings on Earth by Roberto Bolano
Give Me Your Heart by Joyce Carol Oates
The Complete Short Stories of Roald Dahl
Complete Short Stories by Raymond Carver


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