Our Reading Lives

So You Hate Short Stories?

Our Reading Lives features stories about how books and reading have shaped who we are and how we live.

This is a guest post from Jacob Tomsky. He is a dedicated veteran of the hospitality business. Well-spoken, uncannily quick on his feet, and no more honest than he needs to be, he also is the founder and president of Short Story Thursdays, a weekly, email based short story club. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, O Magazine, The Daily Beast, and other venues. His book, Heads in Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality, recently came out in paperback. Born in Oakland, California, to a military family, Tomsky now lives in Brooklyn, New York. Follow him on Twitter @jacobtomsky.

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I always hated short stories.

I considered reading a short story like going out to dinner and only ordering an appetizer.  Want a real meal?  Eat a goddamn novel.

But then something happened in my life, something wonderful, and, when it was all over, I found myself the president and founder of a governmentally recognized non-profit short story organization that dispatches classic short stories, every Thursday morning, to thousands of members across the world.

What happened?

I got fired from my goddamn job.

Obviously, though, more than that happened.

I’ve worked in the hotel business my whole life, mostly front desk.  Wrote a memoir about it.  It sold super well.  I’m very proud of it.  But before I even started the first draft of what would become Heads in Beds, I was just an unpublished novelist working at a hotel and doing a shit job at it because I was burnt out.  And so they fired me.

But I fought to get my job back and, because I was a card-carrying dues-paying union member, they were forced to hire me back.

You ever been fired from a job and then rehired?  Lemme tell you: You walk into work everyday with disdain for your life.  Meanwhile management attempts to use every available opportunity to fire you again.  It’s a pretty lame way to limp though life.  So I stood at the front desk, acutely unmotivated, and had to pass the hours of the day in some way.

It was important, if I wanted to keep my job, that I kept my head down.  And I did.  I kept my head down.  But guess what was down there.  A computer terminal.  A stapler.  Keycards.  Some hotel stationery.

Pretty boring, visually.  Extremely boring, mentally.

So I decided to print out a short story from the Internet.  That way, when I read it, it would look like I was working and mentally I would be stimulated.  Plus I’d never read many short stories.

I didn’t get past the first paragraph before a bellman came up and interrupted me (bellmen are always, constantly, up in your goddamn business):

“What you reading there, chief?”

“A short story,” I told him.

To this he said nothing.

I was about to open my mouth and offer a bit more clarification when he let out something unexpected:

“Well, pass it to me when you’re done then.”

So I did.  And I watched him take it to the corner of the lobby and start reading.  I knew him very well personally, his interests, his hobbies, and reading literature (reading anything) was certainly not a part of his life.  But after reading the last sentence he flipped to the first page again and stared at it (as you do when you finish something) then walked over and fluttered the print-out onto my desk.  I figured he hated it.

“What’s next?” He asked me.

That was the moment of genesis.  The very start of my short story organization.

We read four short stories that day.  And when we were done with a print-out we passed it to other bored people at work.  When they were finished they asked for the next print-out.  We were all reading the same stories and it was fun.  Work was super fun that day.

Then the bellman took two weeks off.

Then, the day he came back, he walked up to me and asked:

“What’s next, chief?”

I knew exactly what he meant.  But this time I knew I should start curating.  If I wanted to nurture this non-reader’s interest in literature, I couldn’t afford to dispense any shitty stories.  No garbage.  So I took my time and found a great one.  And (using company paper and toner!) I printed out a short story on a Thursday morning.  We got paid on Thursdays.

So there it was: Every Thursday, at my hotel, you got a paycheck and a short story to wash it down with.  I named it Short Story Thursdays and soon everyone started calling it SST.  It grew to about 20 members at the hotel, encompassing many departments; telephone operators, people in the accounting department, one lady in the sales department, the concierge desk and more.  People who felt they had no time to read, or didn’t even think themselves capable of understanding or enjoying literature were looking forward to Thursday’s story.

Then I quit my job.  To write the hotel book.  And there was immediate concern about the future of Short Story Thursdays.  I collected email addresses from all 20 members and promised to send a dispatch every Thursday morning to introduce the story, and the story itself would be formatted and attached.  I told them, as a joke, that the email would come from shutyourlazymouthandread@gmail.com.  We all thought that was funny.

That ended up not being a joke.  Or it’s still a joke but it’s now a high-functioning joke.  Pretty soon they started signing up their friends and family.  I signed up my friends and family.  People told people.  I started getting emails from strangers wanting to join.  I created business cards.  I partnered with a bar in Brooklyn to establish a home base.  I moved the organization over to an official and substantially longer email address:

shutyourlazymouthandread@shortstorythursdays.com

We became a governmentally recognized non-profit (though I haven’t figured out how to get funding so I still do it alone and for free).  Today I am more proud of SST than anything I have ever done in my life.  I love it, you guys.  People are reading again.  Finding time.  On the subway.  On their smartphone.

All from public domain literature.  Dusty shit that was just lying about on the Internet.  Funneled through an email account.  An organization composed solely of words and electricity.

I love short stories now.  In today’s world, for some people, it is the only option.  All they have time for.  And they are making time for it.

I love short stories now.

And anyone who says differently?

I will punch them in the mouth.

If that joke bothered you: You might not like SST.  But today in America you gotta have an edge to cut through the noise.  And we’ve got that.  Anyone reading Book Riot is a reader, no doubt, and doesn’t need any help or encouragement to read.  Carry on, motherfuckers.  But every reader knows 400 non-readers.  And that’s a goddamn tragedy.

It’s time to start punching people in the mouth, every week, with literature.

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