The Biblioracle: Short stories' proper shrift

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Big and small books

The Biblioracle says a good short story should dislocate and reorient a reader. (Max Oppenheim, Getty Images)

When it comes to recommending books, I'm often hesitant to reach for collections of short stories because when I talk to readers — even very dedicated and passionate readers — they often tell me that they'll read just about anything, "except for short stories."


This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.


To me, this is crazy talk. It's like saying, "I'll eat anything except the most delicious chocolate cake imaginable, crafted from ingredients cultivated by angels in heaven and transported by unicorns straight to Ina Garten's kitchen."

I think a lot of people maybe don't read short stories in an optimal way. As delicious as that Ina Garten angel/unicorn chocolate cake may be, you should probably only have one (or maybe two) pieces a day. I usually have a short story collection alongside the novel I'm reading. Currently, I'm making my way through Donna Tartt's new novel "The Goldfinch" alongside Tom Barbash's story collection, "Stay Up With Me." So far, both are terrific, and even go great together, like chocolate cake and a nice glass of milk.

The other key is to read the entire story in a single sitting. The very best ones have a kind of diamond hardness, a compression down to only the most essential elements. The sensation of reading a great short story is like having the author remove part of your skull, reach in and scoop out some essential part of your brain you didn't previously know existed, and then display it in front of you.

Reading that over, I realize I've made it sound gross, but I mean to convey how a short story can simultaneously dislocate and reorient the reader. As we are immersed in the narrative, we are quickly and thoroughly dislocated from our own consciousness (a blessing in my case) until the narrative ends and we return to our senses, with a fresh understanding of the world we inhabit. I even occasionally find myself holding my breath as I read, as though I need to suspend all activity while I exist in this other world.

These are stories I can recommend to just about anyone. The list is, in no way exhaustive, my own "best-of" list contains over 300 stories by a couple hundred different authors. Most of the stories below are even Internet-searchable.

"A Good Man Is Hard to Find" by Flannery O'Connor. O'Connor and James Baldwin are, in my opinion, the greatest American literary geniuses of the 20th century. There are dozens of her stories I could list here.

"The Things They Carried" by Tim O'Brien. O'Brien's examination of what it means for young men to go to war. Somehow heartbreaking and beautiful both.

"The Lesson" by Toni Cade Bambara. A story about a girl growing up in different circumstances (1950s Harlem) from my own (John Hughes' suburbia), which is probably why it hit me so hard.

"The Bear Came Over the Mountain" by Alice Munro. To my knowledge the recent Nobelist has never written a bad story, but this is my favorite.

"Gryphon" by Charles Baxter. A coming of age story about a crazy teacher who maybe isn't so crazy.

"Nobody's Business" by Jhumpa Lahiri. Another writer where it's hard to go wrong with her stories.

"The Chromium Hook" by Ron Carlson. A hilarious version of the urban legend of the man with a hook for a hand.

"A Father's Story" by Andre Dubus. Somehow, every time I read this story, I get something in my eye at the end.

"Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been" by Joyce Carol Oates. Utterly terrifying.

Biblioracle John Warner is the author of "The Funny Man."

The Biblioracle offers his recommendations

1. "Heading Out to Wonderful" by Robert Goolrick

2. "The Potty Mouth at the Table" by Laurie Notaro

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