People ask me how I found time to read during my year of reading one book a day. Based on how often and from how many places around the world the question has been asked, it is clear that time is the biggest hurdle to sitting down and reading. For many, there is just no way around the demands of a job, a commute, or a family. But there is a solution to the time crunch: the beauty and brevity of a short story. For those with circumscribed time, short stories deliver, and deliver big time.
Luckily for readers, there are many great short story writers out there (it is amazing how many, when you consider that in a novel a few rotten pages won't kill the book but in a short story, one bad sentence can sink the whole boat). Great writers can create fully rendered characters (often with just one perfect sentence), place them within acute cross-hatchings of landscape and time, and then allow a good shake-up of love, sorrow, fear, or death. There we are: the complete experience of suspense, catharsis, and release, all within a ten or twenty or thirty pages.
This morning I took time out to read a story from Kazuo Ishiguro's new collection of short stories, Nocturnes. I read " Crooner " and it took me twenty-eight minutes. I was ferried away from Halloween suburban chaos ("where is that bottle of fake blood I spent my entire allowance on?") to the canals of Venice; I was made witness to a marriage shorn of possibility and yet still rounded with love, and moved by a young man's memories of his mother. Twenty-eight minutes of transporting beauty, and of pleasure that will last well beyond the fake blood stains on the new couch (who even cares, when there is such beauty in the world?).
Middle school teachers have long known the power of the short story. There is no better way to grab hold of attention-deranged pre-pubescents than to hand them "The Tell-Tale Heart" by Poe or "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson, and command: read! Once they get started, they follow through to the end. Works for them, can work for anyone.
The power of the short story can also be seen in the number of the genre that have been put on stage and screen. "The Gift of the Magi" by O. Henry, "Brokeback Mountain" By Annie Proulx, "In the Gloaming" by Alice Elliot Dark, "Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes to Iowa" by W.P. Kinsella, and "Augie Wren's Christmas Story" by Paul Auster are just a few (and some of my favorites). Perhaps the best known short story of all time is "A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens, which has spawned more movies, plays, musicals, TV renditions, take-offs, and rip-offs than I could possibly list. "A Christmas Carol" revolutionized the concepts of charity and social responsibility in its own time and led to lasting and permanent changes that we see (and take for granted) today, to say nothing of its impacts on the customs and practices of Christmas itself.
Book groups with members short on time can pick a short story to discuss instead of an entire book: there is more of real life in one story by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie or Charlotte Perkins Gilman or Allan Sillitoe than many novels can pull out in 400 pages. Want to discuss the help? Try Adichie's "Imitation." Want to discuss a failed marriage? Gilman's "The Yellow Newspaper" will bring on chills and great discussions, like whether the husband drove her crazy or maybe she was just made that way. What makes a family dysfunctional? Read about the family of "The Long Distance Runner" by Sillitoe and let your book groupies go at it. (Book groups whose members have the time to read an entire collection of stories can really go crazy feeding on all the themes, characters, and evocations).
I learned more about resilience in the face of overwhelming loss through Mary Yukari Waters' The Laws of Evening than through any novel I read last year; the stories contained in Antonya Nelson's Female Trouble offered more guilt-relief through shared pain and laughter than any therapy session. Dickens' short stories are streamlined perfection of his larger works (for when you just don't have time for Nicholas Nickleby) and bring a perfect pick-me-up in less time than a laundry cycle.
Reading short stories by authors famous for their longer works can offer unexpected rewards. I found a warm and witty Nathaniel Hawthorne in his Twice-Told Tales, and a playful agility I never could have imagined from The Scarlet Letter. In Look at the Birdie, a new collection of Kurt Vonnegut's previously unpublished stories, we find, according to Dave Eggers' review in the New York Times Book Review, a world where "good and evil are clearly delineated, and the good guys always win": a world we won't see in Vonnegut's novels. Hemingway offers a memoir through his Nick Adams stories and Updike does the same through his short works. Many of us may never finish War and Peace by Tolstoy but we can all take on "The Kreutzer Sonata" and win. I have read that story more than once and each time, loved it: sex, revenge, and beautiful music.
That is the other great thing about short stories. If you like a story, you can re-read it, maybe even right away. You can have your cake -- a great read -- and eat it too. We've all got time for that slice of cake, and oh what pleasures we'll reap.