Reading the short story: my most valuable tip

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.

About Rob

Rob, a self-confessed bibliophile, is without any hope of rehabilitation. He gets unnaturally excited over anything book-shaped, and if book sniffing were a crime then he would have been locked up years ago (which wouldn't bother him in the slightest provided his cell was lined with books)

Comments

  1. Excellent points Rob. I am a big fan of re-reading everything however, whether they be short stories or the length of Middlemarch. It is easier with short fiction obviously but I think you just don’t get a book on the first of second reading, or maybe you do, but it is only one of the ‘books’ available to you in that text (if that’s not too post-modern for a Friday) and it is shame to miss out on the other versions.

    • Rob (Twitter: robaroundbooks)
      says:

      I think you’re absolutely right Catherine. Not an easy thing to do with anything other than short fiction, but I’ve found that I’ve especially gotten a novel when I’ve read it more than once. Just a shame that time is never on our side :).
      Warmest
      Rob

  2. I completely agree Rob. Last year, I started rereading some shorter works (novellas and short stories), and it was a positive experience. However, I can’t do it straight away; I need to have at least a week between readings, or my brain just refuses to concentrate! To fill in a couple of days’ reading at the end of last year, I reread several stories from my Oxford collection of Japanese Short Stories, and there were a few which I really enjoyed, more so than the first time around.

    On a related note, I watched the third episode of the first new series of ‘Doctor Who’ again last night (Dickens in Cardiff!), and seeing it post-Torchwood was a fascinating experience – especially with Eve Myles playing the major guest role 😉

    • Rob (Twitter: robaroundbooks)
      says:

      Thanks for taking the time to respond Tony. You flag a fascinating method for rereading short stories, and it’s one which is completely different to the method I employ. I should have made it clear in my post, but I reread a short story IMMEDIATELY after finishing it. It’s the only way I find myself able to fully understand and engage with a story. It’s interesting that you need so much time between rereadings. Such a time gap would never work for me, partly because I read so many stories, and partly because I forget what I’ve read so quickly. That said, I continually return to the stories of a core number of masters of the form, some of which I’ve noted above. One can never reread the creations of these geniuses enough. So bearing this in mind, maybe our methods aren’t so different after all.

      Oh and Re: Doctor Who. I have absolutely no idea what you’re going on about, although I see that you may have something of a major crush on a certain Miss Myles 🙂
      Warmest
      Rob

      • Re: Doctor Who – Torchwood is the Doctor Who spin-off, based in Cardiff, which didn’t appear until a year or so after this episode of its parent programme. This episode actually sets up the raison d’etre of the Torchwood Concept, so watching it again post-Torchwood was like watching it with hindsight 🙂

        Also, while Eve Myles is a lovely lady, where I was going with that is that she actually plays the lead role in Torchwood as one of the Alien catchers, while in this episode of Doctor Who she played a young woman with a special connection to the events going on, with a name (Gywneth) similar to that of the later character (Gwen) – possibly an ancestor. In short, it’s all very meta-fictional 😉

  3. Kinna (Twitter: kinnareads)
    says:

    I absolutely agree. It is essential to reread shorts especially those I don’t initially enjoy. I like and do read several shorts a day, working my way through a collection or an anthology. All the best.

    • Rob (Twitter: robaroundbooks)
      says:

      Great minds think alike and all that, Kinna :). I’m delighted that you embrace the short story form as much as you do.
      Warmest
      Rob

  4. I think this is a true rule. One that I have a hard time following. But the reminder will tug at me next time I sit down with a short story.

    • Rob (Twitter: robaroundbooks)
      says:

      Great to hear from you Jessica. I hope you are well. Hopefully I’ve given you a nudge, but I realise that time is a great enemy when it comes to adopting a rereading system such as this.
      Warmest
      Rob

  5. Do you re-read the story immediately (within a day or two) or do you set it aside for a while to let it sink in before reading again? I definitely think that re-reading enhances one’s experience, though sadly I just don’t do enough of it.

    Very informative post. Thanks Rob.

    • Rob (Twitter: robaroundbooks)
      says:

      Thank you for stopping by Suzanne. I should have made it clearer in the post that I usually reread a short story IMMEDIATELY after I’ve read it the first time. Doing so ensures that I’m able to retain and understand the story a lot better than I would if I were to mull on it for a day or two. My memory is so bad that there is little advantage in me leaving a story to percolate in the brain.
      Warmest
      Rob

  6. stujallen (Twitter: stujallen)
    says:

    some wonderful tips Rob I need to find a rhythm with short stories that as of late I ve not really found ,all the best stu

  7. Vanessa Nishikubo says:

    Hi Rob,
    I’m excited about finding your site.
    Thank you!
    Vanessa

  8. Just found your site. Love it. Short stories rule for me.

    • Rob (Twitter: robaroundbooks)
      says:

      Hi Paula,
      Very kind of you to say. And I couldn’t agree more, there’s no literary form more glorious than the short story.
      Warmest
      Rob