She remembers once loving someone more than anyone else. In December 2016, I recorded this line from Japanese writer Julie Otsuka’s short story “Diem Perdidi” and thus began a journey that would last thirty-two months, and change my life, my reading, and my writing forever. Like many young girls, who are slightly dreamy and outcast, my youth was spent reading novels, especially classics and epic poems. Though I retained a love for fairy tales, I quickly outgrew so-called YA novels, and moved into the adult section of the library. In grade school, I remember I wasn’t allowed to rent Studio 54 at Blockbuster, but I was always allowed to borrow anything I wanted at the library. I’m sure my girlhood hours with The Picture of Dorian Gray and Lolita taught me a lot more about the depravity and ambiguities of the world than that nightclub film, anyway.
As life went on, despite studying literature in college, I never developed the same ardor and appreciation for short stories as I did for the novel or poetry. Maybe there were already too many changes happening to me in college for another big change like radically rethinking my relationship to novels and short stories. Short stories, to me then, were like side projects for novelists. They were the baby cousins. They were snacks. Some of these thoughts might have developed because I rarely read story collections. Story anthologies were rarely assigned or recommended to me. I read stories in isolation between novels and non-fiction books or articles. I read individual short stories as assignments or while flipping through The Atlantic or The New Yorker at the Strand. In college, I read and loved many classic short stories and stories by Lorrie Moore, but I still gravitated towards the novel section of the bookstore.
Much has been written about how the proliferation of MFA programs in the United States has changed the way young Americans are writing. Essentially, the short story is an easier form for the workshop setting, the common pedagogical method in these programs, but the short story has always been a beloved form of writing across the world, especially amongst writers and bibliophiles. So, though I would call myself a late-bloomer to the short story form, that is somewhat inaccurate. It is truer that I had a love epiphany in my late twenties. My love for short stories was always there, just unspoken of, unrealized. I was Jane Austen’s Emma and the short story was my Mr. Knightley! I had loved him all along! Like Mr. Knightley, who notoriously does not have a lot of money and assets but has a great deal of compassion and intelligence, the short story is rich in its brevity. And like poetry, it will not tolerate superfluous words, or characters the way a novel will.
In December 2016, acknowledging my swelling feelings toward the form, I began keeping a record of the short stories I read and a little over two years later, I’ve reached 300 short stories. I have read and reread stories from all over the world. Stories that were as long as novellas, like Gustave Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart” (story 155), and others that the genre-obsessed may call short short stories, like Dino Buzzati’s “The Falling Girl” (story 242). Most of the stories I read in English or in English translations, others I read more slowly (with a dictionary nearby) in Italian and Mandarin. I did not record hybrid books like Joan Silber’s The Size of the World, or Deepak Unnikrishnan’s Temporary People. I could have read the stories quicker, but that wasn’t the point. I read short stories between novels and newspapers, between studying languages, while working a full-time job, while writing and editing, and falling in and out of love. I read short stories on five continents. At countless airports and bus stops. Most stories I read in transit. I read George Saunder’s “The Semplica-Girl Diaries (story 6) aloud during a road-trip home from Khor Fakkan, and Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Black Cat” (story 161) on the train from New York City to Philadelphia. Sometimes my place descriptions were mysterious; I read Haruki Murakami’s “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman” (story 186) somewhere “midday and golden.”
My record keeping was spare, because I believed the beauty and wisdom of the stories would sink somewhere deep within me and reveal itself in subconscious ways. I decided to record: the story’s title, author, year it was written or published, one line from the story, where I read it, and a note about the story, author, or even about my disposition while reading it. Later, I decided to also record themes of the story. This process has served me well. In the beginning, I didn’t set out to read any particular number of stories. I merely numbered the stories to keep track, but I’m glad I did. Though I might have reached my goal, now the only thing to do is move the goalpost and read more.
For whatever reason, though folks often recommend me novels and television shows, or email me articles, folks rarely recommend me short stories. I’m not sure why this is. Maybe folks aren’t reading a lot of short stories? Maybe they prefer novels and non-fiction books? Maybe folks haven’t had their short story love epiphany yet. Regardless, I think short stories are the best kind of reading to recommend friends because they are a shorter commitment than novels or non-fiction books, and their affect might last longer than even a well-written news article in our fast-paced never-sleeping news cycle.
In a recent interview, Ottessa Moshfegh was asked what book she would recommend someone read. She answered that the person should read whatever book their best friend recommended to them, because that way, the person would understand their best friend better. I’ve thought about Moshfegh’s answer as I’ve compiled my list of fifteen stories below, because the truth is this cocktail of short stories isn’t what I would recommend to everybody. If anyone were to ask me for a short story recommendation, my answer would be tailored to that current person’s needs and desires at that time in their life. Say, a friend wants to feel the difference between solitude and loneliness, I’d recommend Rick Bass’ “The Hermit’s Story” (story 65) and his “The Lives of Rocks” (story 112). Or a friend wants something that is both epic and intimate, they want to learn a little history. If so, I’d recommend “Train to Harbin” by Asako Serizawa (story 103). For a great post-war story, a story about the aftershocks of alcoholism, I’d recommend F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Babylon Revisited” (story 29). All that is to say that the below list of fifteen short stories does not constitute my favorite fifteen stories of all time or what I might necessarily recommend to you, personally. The fifteen short stories I’ve listed here are the ones that have stuck with me the most over the last two years. They are the stories that rise to my brain at strange times. They are the ones I find myself thinking of again and again. What makes me smile is that if I wrote this list a month from now or a year from now, I imagine it might be different, because I’ll continue reading, revisiting, and writing short stories. Short stories are a beautiful part of my life, and some of my best times are with people who also love a good short story. So, if there is ever a time, when all you want is to grab a drink in a dusky bar and discuss a good short story, consider calling me.
15 Great Short Stories
- Story 11: “At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners” Lauren Groff (2014)
- Story 24: “Bullet in the Brain” by Tobias Wolff (1995)
- Story 38: “Gryphon” by Charles Baxter (1985)
- Story 58: “If You Sing Like That For Me” by Akhil Sharma (1996)
- Story 86: “Sail” by Tash Aw (2011)
- Story 96: “Spring in Fialta” by Vladimir Nabokov (1947)
- Story 103: “Train to Harbin” by Asako Serizawa (2016)
- Story 121: “Young Titans” by Nescio (1915)
- Story 122: “The Sirens” by Maria Dermoût (1963)
- Story 164: “The Great Wall of China” by Franz Kafka (1917)
- Story 172: “The Adventure of a Traveler” by Italo Calvino (1958)
- Story 236: “The Long-Distance Runner” by Grace Paley (1974)
- Story 285: “By the River” by Joyce Carol Oates (1969)
- Story 292: “The Grasshopper and The Bell Cricket” by Yasunari Kawabata (1988)
- Story 300: “An Insolvable Problem of Genetics” by Josef Skvorecky (1966)
Photo by Samantha Neugebauer