Monday, 6 April 2020

How short stories are helping me read in a crisis

Like a lot of people, when lockdown started, one of my early thoughts was "well, at least I'll finally get around to reading loads of those books I've been meaning to read!"

So I picked up The Cider House Rules, a 700+ page beast I've had on my shelf since I was 15.

And on day one I read a few pages.

Then day two, a few more.

On day three I really buckled down and read... maybe 30 pages.

It was hard, it was overwhelming, I couldn't focus.

And it turns out I'm not alone. So many people on my Twitter feed - and not just my book-obsessed friends - have lamented their struggle for concentration over the last few weeks, and especially lacking the concentration to sit down and read. And they're frustrated by this wide open opportunity to read which it feels like they're wasting.

And I felt exactly the same. There was no way I was going to have the concentration to read this 700 page American epic.

But I could maybe manage 15 pages, maybe 20. 

So I picked up a short story off my shelf. And flicked to the contents page. One story. I can manage that.

So I read one. Then checked how long the next one was. Okay, I can manage that. How long is the next one? Maybe one more.

And then suddenly I could read again. In short bursts. One story at a time. 

And soon I'd read one collection. Then another. Then a third. Then I began to raid my shelf for other collections I'd amassed.

And if you're thinking "oh well short stories aren't for me/I never read short stories/", well, I used to be just like you.

Three years ago? Not interested. Didn't get them. Might read the odd one by accident.

And it wasn't that I didn't like them, I just didn't think they were for me.

In fact, it was only when I started listening to my favourite podcast, What Page Are You On? that I started to dip my toe into short stories. Alice in particular is so passionate about short stories - and I was so passionate about reading everything she recommended - that I found myself reading more and more.

And over the last two or three years I've read 17 short story collections. And 4 in the last 5 days.

Short stories are perfect for times like this when your brain feels both fried and bored, exhausted and buzzing, melancholic and frantic. You can pick up a short story instead of checking the news yet again. You could finish one in a couple of minutes.

You don't have to remember characters or plot, or even worlds. Because as soon as it's finished there will be another. Don't like a story? That's okay, you might like the next one. Most collections are 200 pages. Some are less than a hundred. You could read that in a day, or a couple of days. You can give yourself the buzz of satisfaction from completing a whole book in a matter of hours.

And for me in particularly, another reason I love short story collections is because I've read so few! There's a whole world of short stories out there waiting for me to discover. I found a tweet today that Alice posted at the end of 2019 asking people on Twitter to recommend their favourite short story collections of the decade. I wrote a list of 67 I hadn't read!

I've managed to get my to-read list down to around 30, with a couple of their way and some waiting for payday (slight side note - even though I predominantly buy books on Kindle (when I'm not reading library books which make up a good 50% of what I read. CAN'T WAIT FOR YOU TO REOPEN AGAIN LIBRARIES!) I always ALWAYS get physical copies of short stories. I like the idea of flicking back through and looking over them, and as I said above, I like to be able to see how long each one is, which isn't as easy on kindle. Anyway, just a little quirk of my reading there!).

I know I'll go back to novels soon, but I'm enjoying being excited about short stories right now and looking forward to all the stories I will read over the next few weeks.

My favourite collections (SO FAR!):

Looking to get started with short stories? As I said above I am IN NO WAY an expert as I've literally been reading short stories for like, 3 years, but these are some of my faves (btw, I like feminist horror which is a big theme here):

The Last Girlfriend on Earth by Simon Rich
Things we lost in the fire by Mariana Enriquez
Exercises in Control by Annabel Banks
The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson
Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
Multitudes by Lucy Caldwell
Salt Slow by Julia Armfield
Things We Say in the Dark by Kirsty Logan

Next on my to-read list


Here's a taste of some of the collections on my to-read list:

Mothers by Chris Power
The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter
Growing Things and Other Stories by Paul Tremblay
Uncommon Type by Tom Hanks
Furnace by Livia Llewellyn
Where Furnances Burn by Joel Lane
This Paradise by Ruby Cowling
Come Let Us Sing Anyway by Leone Ross
Jesus' Son by Denis Johnsonb
Children of the New World by Alexander Weinstein
Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins
How to Love a Jamaican by Alexia Arthurs
A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin
Pulse Points by Jennifer Downs
Reasons and Advantages of Breathing by Linda Peelle
This way to Departures by Linda Mannheim
Ghost Summer by Tananarive Due
Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
Madame Zero by Sarah Hall
The Beautiful Indifference by Sarah Hall
Rental Heart by Kirsty Logan
Speak Gigantular by Irenosen Okojie
Things to Make and Break by May-Lan Tan

Got a favourite short story collection not on my list? Drop me a tweet!

Charlotte x

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