The Beauty of Short Works

In Persuasion Nation by George Saunders
David Foster Wallace The Complete Stories by Flannery O'Connor

I naively used to think that writers of short stories and essays simply didn't have enough good material to fill a traditional book. Fortunately some great teachers, and exposure to some of the best writers in the field, showed me the incredible art of short form writing.

The beauty of short works has become even more apparent as I've read too many books lately where I'm left feeling like a shorter essay or short story would've been more powerful. Often (like my college papers) they had a few great things to say but had used filler to make it fit a length requirement. As print magazines, the previous bastion of short form, are shutting their doors, I'm encouraged to see new outlets such as Kindle Singles and Ted Talks remind people that brevity can be a virtue. As Thomas Jefferson said, "The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do."

If what you're reading feels a bit long-winded, try some of the following collections. It's kind of like the reading equivalent of dumping the whole Kool-Aid packet in your mouth instead of diluting it in 2 liters of water. Beware the intensity, but enjoy it all the same.

Fiction

  • In Persuasion Nation by George Saunders - It feels unfair that I was only introduced to Saunders this year. His wit, at times absurd, is refreshing while typically having a polemic intent to it that leaves you in a contemplative place.
  • What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander - Englander's novel, Ministry of Special Casesis a book I'm constantly recommending and now I have another of his to push upon people. He masterfully sets scenes in these stories that grapple with everyday life.
  • Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower - Revolving around relationships, each of the stories not only delve into the psychology of their characters but do so with vividly and moving description. Check out this story from This American Life for a taste.
  • The Collected Stories by Amy Hempel - Hempel, who actually spent part of her early years in Denver, writes in minimalist fashion. With little in the way of back story, she drops you into a moment and you're hard-pressed to find a wasted word.
  • The Complete Stories by Flannery O'Connor - When playing the desert island game, this might be my selection if I could only have one book. O'Connor's writings on human nature and faith were at the forefront of my education in short stories and remain revisited favorites.

Nonfiction

  • Consider the Lobster and Other Essays by David Foster Wallace - The best collection of essays I've ever read. It includes his review of an American grammar dictionary, critique of ghostwritten sports biographies, and his campaign travels with John McCain. With Wallace, you start out thinking it's a standard journalistic piece, but by the end, he has transported you into something more human and interesting than you thought possible.
  • Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan - Ever wonder what it'd be like to visit Axl Rose's hometown and talk to folks that knew him as a kid?  Or attend a Christian rock festival?  These are just a couple of experience Sullivan writes about with a sense of compassion and personal reflection.
  • Listen to This by Alex Ross - I've never read a music writer who confidently covers the range from classical to contemporary pop as well as Ross. It made me want to listen to pieces of music that I never thought I'd be interested in.
  • In Other Worlds: Science Fiction and the Human Imagination by Margaret Atwood - Atwood does an amazing job in this collection of both demystifying aspects science fiction through thoughtful critique but also adding wonder to it through exploring its relevance to imagination and provocation. It inspired me start a list of classic sci fi books that I can't wait to read.
  • The Portable Thoreau - Thoreau has a way with words that I've always loved and his ideas are more accessible than most people assume. His belief that anyone had potential to transform into something greater consistently inspires me. Almost anything in this anthology will leave you wanting to live life more deliberately.

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