How to Read More Short Stories (or Essays or Poems or Other Short Form Pieces)

James Joyce’s “The Dead” changed how I think about people and human relationships. One of my favorite Tales of Teaching comes from when I taught Ursula LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” to 40 undergraduates. Just the other night, after having finished the Shirley Jackson biopic Shirley, I read the entirety of “The Lottery” to my partner because he’d never read it. Short fiction is great. I love short stories. So why don’t I ever read them?

I realized a few years ago that I don’t care for reading short story collections. To start, the stories often vary in quality, which demotivates me. But for the most part I don’t enjoy the reading experience of jumping straight from one story to the next. It gives me narrative whiplash. I have the same experience with reading essay collections. And so I read little of either.

But a few weeks ago I was between books, having finished one novel and awaiting another from the bookstore. So I picked up Karen Russell’s Orange World and Other Stories, which my friend Rachel gifted me for my birthday back in January. I haven’t read any of Russell’s work, although I’ve long been curious about her hit novel Swamplandia!, so I did not know what to expect with this collection. Friends, these stories are amazing—deliciously ooky and weird but also beautifully written. One tells the story of a Scottish teenager who falls in love with the uncovered body of an ancient girl from the bog. Another focuses on a young woman accidentally infected by the soul of a Joshua Tree. And still another is about the ranching and raising of tornadoes and other storms. What I appreciate most about the stories is how Russell takes an idea we’ve heard before—girls at an all-male party of ghosts, medieval vampire-zombies—and puts her own spin on them, like a jeweler adding new facets to a stone.

Russell’s stories captivated me, but I still resisted reading the collection through directly. If nothing else, these stories deserve the time and space to stand as themselves. And so I’ve been mimicking how I came to them in the first place, reading one in-between finishing and starting other books. And I’m loving it! I think I’ll keep it up even after I finish the Russell. I’ve got another collection of her’s and Lot by Bryan Washington sitting on my shelf. And I’ve been wanting to pick up Samantha Irby’s essay collection Wow, no Thank You. And then there’s all the fiction and essays available online. Happy (short form) reading!

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