How Do I Incorporate Short Stories Back Into My Reading Life?

I used to read a ton of short stories. My love of short fiction grew out of the many creative writing classes I took in my early 20s. I didn’t finish college, but living outside Boston as a young adult, I took advantage of the many workshops on offer, and took as many writing classes as I could afford. We read a lot of short stories in those classes, and I fell in love with story after story.

I started filling an old binder with the photocopied printouts of stories we read in class. Writer friends recommended stories, which I’d track down in the library, copy, and add to the binder. Of course I’d read short fiction before, both in and out of school. But during those years in my early twenties I was hungry for short stories in a new way. I couldn’t get enough. I loved their quickness, how they could sharpen a character or an emotion down to its essential truth and lay it bare on the page.

Photo taken by me

So, naturally, I started seeking out short story collections. I’d read a story in class that utterly floored me, and then I’d go read a whole collection by that author. Between 2006 and 2016 I read 40 short story collections—which might not sound like a lot spread over ten years, but it certainly felt like a lot. I was always tracking down new collections.

But then something disappointing started happening: the more story collections I read, the less I enjoyed them. I can still remember the first time I read the story “Shadow on a Weary Land” by Lydia Peele. It remains one of my favorite stories to this day. But I felt kinda meh about her collection, Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing. I still get shivers thinking about Julie Orringer’s story “Note to Sixth Grade Self,” but I literally cannot remember a thing about her collection How to Breathe Underwater. It left no mark.

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa LahiriThere were, of course, exceptions to this rule. Jhumpa Lahiri’s story “A Temporary Matter” might just be my favorite short story ever written; it’s a masterpiece of contemporary literature, and so is the collection it appears in, Interpreter of Maladies. I love every Aimee Bender collection I’ve ever read. I adored Paul Yoon’s first book of stories, Once the Shore. But these books were few and far between. Over and over again, I’d fall in love with a story, seek out more work by the author, and end up disappointed. Of the 60 short story collections I’ve shelved on Goodreads, I’ve only rated 14 of them with four stars.

best books to read in hospitalYou might be able to imagine what happened next: gradually, I stopped reading short story collections: I read ten in 2017, six in 2018, four in 2019, and so far in 2020, zero. The last collection I can remember absolutely loving was What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi, which I read in 2017.

At first this shift in my reading was freeing. Getting disappointed over and over again by short story collections was so frustrating. It was a relief to just pass over short fiction, knowing a novel would be more likely to satisfy me. I’d see people raving about new collections and feel absolutely no pressure to read them. I’d tried whole books of short fiction, and it hadn’t worked. I honestly didn’t even notice that I’d barley read any short fiction last year. I had too many other things to read.

But here’s the thing: I desperately miss short stories. I haven’t read one since July 2019, and I’m starting to notice the loss. I’m craving them like some delicious treat I’ve been denying myself. So I’m faced with a dilemma: how do I incorporate short stories back into my reading life without the same thing happening all over again?

I fell in love with short fiction reading it piecemeal, viewing stories as whole pieces of art, separate from the collections they sometimes appeared in. These days, I read almost nothing but books. I prefer reading essay collections over online articles; whole books of poetry over a single poem.

But I’m starting to realize that whole books aren’t the best way for me to read short fiction. I recently found that old binder where I collected stories, and just flipping through it gives me shivers. I can still feel those stories in my bones. I want to find new stories that feel that way to me, that surprise me and open me, like the best writing does.

Photo taken by me

I doubt I’ll ever wholeheartedly love short story collections. But I can see now that I didn’t have to stop reading short stories altogether. I just had to find a different way to take them in. In the end, cutting short story collections out of my reading life for a while reminded me how much I love short fiction. And it taught me not to put restraints on how I read: enjoying a single story is just as valid as reading a whole book of them.

If you, like me, love short stories but not whole collections, Sarah has some great recs for where to find short stories online, as well as a list of individual short stories you can read free online right now.