I used to adhere to a strict rule when reading short fiction – never read more than one or two stories in a single day. This was a rule I stuck doggedly to, because I felt that reading any more than this would cause everything to meld in the mind; plot lines would mix together, characters would cross the threshold from one story into another, and it would all become a bit like an out-of-control Facebook party, in my head. Thankfully, I’ve now dropped this notion, and I can now read up to a dozen shorts on a good day (a very very good day mind you), and that’s because I’ve found that it is possible to keep short stories separate from one another in the brain, especially when one is taking brief notes while reading (I’ll share more on my short story note-taking in a future post). However, this is still one crucial short story reading rule that I would never drop, and it’s the most precious short story reading tip that I’m ever likely to share with you:
ALWAYS read a short story MORE THAN ONCE.
Now, this advice may sound somewhat counter productive given that the short story is lauded as being the most suitable literary form to fit in with the hectic pace of 21st Century living. However, I cannot stress enough just how valuable it is to read through a short story more than once. Aside from the bonus of gaining retention, the reader is more likely to understand a story’s true message if he/she engages with it more than once, especially when a short story’s meaning is usually more subtly embedded than it is in a longer work of fiction. There’s also the matter of detail, and so much of it can be lost to the reader who simply sweeps through a short story in a single sitting.
Of course I’m not saying that one can’t enjoy and understand a short story when it’s consumed in a singular bite, but I believe that the real value and understanding of a story can only come from reading it more than once, especially when one has established a ‘route map’ for it. Route map? Well, I liken reading short stories to a tourist visiting an unknown city for the first time (which very much matches my philosophy that every book/story is a journey). On the first day the visitor is so overwhelmed and so focussed on navigating from A to B that he misses out on most of the detail that surrounds him. Sure, the tourist will spot the landmarks and key features, but everything else will be lost on him.
Compare this to the tourist who travels the same route in the city on the following day, when a mental ‘route map’ has been established in his head. This tourist is immediately more familiar with his surroundings, and as a consequence he becomes calmer, more observant and significantly more confident. In this state he begins to venture deeper, and to notice more detail as he goes along. He is becoming more comfortable with his surroundings, and this in turn makes him more receptive to that which surrounds him.
I’ve found exactly the same thing to be true when rereading short stories. When I reread a short story I become instantly more familiar and comfortable in its surroundings, which in turn, just like the tourist, makes me more receptive to that which is going on around me. Almost subconsciously I begin to notice the smaller detail. Familiarity increases my confidence, and it gives me the encouragement to venture deeper. I also become more questioning, more able to read between the lines and more likely to diverge in my thoughts while reading. The result? I tend to come out the other side having soaked up most of the detail of a story, while feeling as though I’ve connected with it on a more sublime level. I feel fulfilled (especially if it’s a good story), my appetite is sated, and I feel as though I’ve given the story the level of focus and attention it deserves. All this, simply because I went back to the story and reread it.
So I invite you dear reader to invest a little more time in getting to know your short stories better (especially if you’ve come to the end of one and don’t really understand what it was about). They may be deemed by many as being quick throwaway bite-sized literary nuggets, but I urge you to reread your short stories as often as possible. I’m not suggesting that you dive back into every one – we are after all living in this hectic twenty first-century – but definitely reread as many short stories as you can. By doing so you will discover the true power of the form, and your soul will be nurtured in ways that you never thought possible. It all begins with the simple step of rereading.
And of course when it comes to the short stories of the greats i.e. Hemingway, Maupassant, Carver, Trevor, Chekhov, O’Connor (Flannery and Frank), Wolff etc. then rereading is an absolute must. You should trample through the creations of these short story masters so often that you can do it blindfolded, because in doing so you will become truly Enlightened. You have my word on that.