How to read short story collections?

20booksof summerMy list of titles for 20booksofsummer includes two short story collections. The Thing Around my Neck is a collection by Chimamanda  Ngozi Adichie that I picked up in the Oxfam stand at the Hay Festival.  At a library sale I found a copy of An Elegy for Easterly by the Zimbabwean writer Petina Gappah which earned her the Guardian first book award in 2009.

Both have been on my ‘to read’ pile for about three years so I thought it was time to pay them some attention. Problem is that I’ve never been much of a fan of short stories. I’ve read only one other collection so I don’t know how best to approach reading these two books. I’m hoping those of you who are more regular readers of this form can come up with some recommendations on how to get the most out of reading the collections.

Do I start at the beginning and just work through the stories in the order in which they appear? Or do I begin with the titular story on the basis that this could have special significance – was it chosen because it sets the tone for the collection perhaps? Or do I just choose randomly?

Is it best to dip in and out of the collection, mixing it up with another book? If I do that I’m concerned I might lose the flow but then if I just read one after the other will they start to blur into one?

So far I’ve just glanced over both of these books and have liked what I’ve seen so far. I don’t want to spoil the experience. All advice will be welcomed.

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on July 10, 2016, in #20books of summer, African authors, Short stories, Sunday Salon and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 36 Comments.

  1. I had the same question. As people have said, it makes sense to read all the stories in a collection and to read them in order. But I’d prefer to read them over a longer period of time, years even, with other books and short stories in between. I’m a slow reader, so I don’t like to tie myself down. Not sure if I’ll do this, but I’m curious if others think that’s a workable strategy, or if that will compromise the experience.

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  3. Keith McCulloch

    I noticed an interesting thing in describing what I was doing to you folks. It seems I hadn’t been fully aware of it: By putting stories in a certain order one is actually creating chapters of a book. Even when I say “Well, this one should be here…no, first. that one there. etc.” I am making a choice for sequence–unrelated stories gain an order even if it”s only “what’s next?”
    It also makes reading a novel a different experience.
    I’ll definitely write of how things go.

  4. Keith McCulloch

    I’m planning on entering a short stories collection competition (one authors stories). My point here has nothing to do with publication or-the usual-the lack of it. From what all of you say reading stories as if they were chapters of a book is more palatable, more sequenced, than unrelated tales that have little in common.
    I am submitting 12 stories from 2 books I have written. The first 5 are literally chapters from a book; same characters, locations-different reactions to similar circumstances. Same with the next 3 but the second book. (Still looking for book publisher)
    The last 4 stories are loners.
    Each tale stands alone and can be read that way. The first 5 come together differently if read in sequence. Same with the second 3.
    All that said, it might provide another way of looking at things. Keith

    • Interesting how you have organised them to come together but can be read differently depending on what order in which you read them. let us know how you fare in the competition Keith

  5. Thematic collections are nice to read from beginning to end. Some collections are ordered for a reason. I notice though that the strongest pieces are usually the first and the last (or second to the last). Other collections are best treated like snacks. They should be taken between heavy meals.

  6. I absolutely keep to the order, trusting that the author and editors arranged them carefully. I do find myself running out of steam and mental space when I tackle a larger compendium, having much better reaction to shorter collections. All this said, I can’t imaging either Adichie or Gappah doing you wrong.

    • i’ve started on the Adichie following the advice from you and others Joslyn to read them in the order they appear and to take them in bite size pieces. The three pieces I’ve read have been good though I still have this feeling at the end of each one that I’m only just getting to engage when it all comes to a halt

  7. well, I’m joining the group here, I really have hard time these days with short stories, exactly for the reason voiced by Penny. Looks like there are nice advice here

  8. I’m not a big reader of them, though I’ve come to really enjoy them. I personally prefer reading the book all the way through (part of my not reading so many is down to that potential feeling of incompleteness). That can help when there’s a definite theme and on those occasions when there are links, one story to another. Blurring into one – that is a downside to reading it through, but if you’ve got another book on the go that should be enough to lessen the chance of that happening.

  9. I just read them in order but prefer shorter collections

    • Both the ones on my reading list are relatively short but I have a huge book of Father Brown stories glaring at me which will take some effort.

  10. I don;t read gobs of short story collections but I’m with Grab the Lapels and Elle, read from beginning to end in order. Some authors link doing linked short stories, meaning the stories are all related to each other somehow through character or plot and they tend to develop an idea or even a complete, bigger story. I really enjoy that sort of collection. Even if the stories aren’t linked though, most authors put lots of thought into their ordering.

  11. I read short stories every week for my blog. I actually prefer anthologies since you get a variety of authors and I’m always interested in exploring new authors’ voices. But for collections by one author, I read randomly, choosing them from the titles; and I tend to read them on and off over a period of time. I keep the book on a table and it becomes my ‘go to’ reading when I want a short story. For me, collections of stories are more like a new friend that you invite in for a brief encounter rather than live with the whole month.

  12. I just blitz short stories – start at the beginning, go all the way through. As Grab the Lapels says, a well-constructed collection is quite often that way for a reason (unlike, say, Collected Stories-type anthologies, which are usually arranged chronologically and don’t always put complementary stories next to one another!)

  13. I recommend reading straight through. Authors put a lot of time and consideration into the order of their stories. The big question to ask yourself is this: do the stories and characters all sound the same, or is each story memorable in some way? Then, ask your self if each story feels satisfying, like eating just the right amount of food. This helps me decide if a story was to short and left much unexplored it if it dragged. You can also ask if the story was to predictable, which I suppose would be like a regular old meal with no spices😉

  14. I’m a bit like Lisa – I feel like I ‘should’ read short stories but rarely do they thrill me. There are some exceptions: I like Rose Tremain. I also like short stories that are linked by an event or a character (such as Olive Kitteridge, although that’s probably a stretch to call that book a short story collection).

    My rule of thumb for reading (and it will sound morbid…) is this – if the author is alive, read in order. If it’s a collection that’s been put together after an author has long been dead, read what you like. The reason is that I do think authors put their stories in a particular order – for tempo, feel, whereas collections put together decades later are just that, collections.

  15. Ohh, and I forgot to add – I prefer reading short stories collections from beginning to end, in order. I rarely skip a story, unless its terribly boring or makes no sense – which is rare.

  16. I’ve read ‘The Thing Around Your Neck’ 2 years ago. It was decent… even though I think Adichie is better a writing full-blown novels instead of short stories lol. (
    I’m not an expert at reading short stories, but I’ve read a good number + anthologies. I say – don’t rush it! Read a story or 2 (max) a day, just so you’re able to absorb and appreciate the stories. If you’re into book polygamy (and you won’t get plots mixed up), you might want to read a completely different genre (like a memoir, non-fiction, poetry) alongside, if you have some reading goals to achieve.

  17. How interesting that so many of us are ‘not really fans’ and that we intersperse our reading of short stories with a novel. Is it a case of what we think we should read alongside what we really want to read?
    I think it is, for me. While there are some exceptions I generally find short stories unsatisfying. I want more. It’s like music, even if I’m time-poor, I’d rather listen to the complexity and development of a symphony than an etude. Beethoven’s 9th, not Fur Elise.
    Authors like to write short stories, and lately, publishers are publishing them, but *frown* they never make me feel that I just can’t wait to read them, not like the way a novel keeps thrusting itself to the top of the TBR pile, seducing me with soft whisperings: read me, read me, you know you’ll never regret it…
    So why, I ask myself, am I reading collections at all?

  18. I also find it hard to know how to approach short stories so I’m so glad you’ve canvassed opinions – I do like Marina’s method, I think that would work best for me.

  19. I can’t claim to be an expert, but I start the collection from the start and read them in order – usually one story a day and, as Cathy suggests, I have a novel on the go at the same time.

  20. I read in order and generally read my short stories alongside a novel. It depends on the collection really, some pull me in just like novels and I read in one go.

  21. I try to start at the beginning, but I often don’t read them in order. For instance, if it’s just before bedtime and I’m sleepy, I will try and find the shortest one. If I have a nice spot of uninterrupted time, I will focus on a longer story with a title and first sentence which appeals.
    (Butterfly mind, I know!). I also alternate them with a novel or two, as I like to give each story a bit of time to ‘settle’.

    • Sounds like a strategy I can adopt. I’also thinking that it would be a good kind of book to take with you to places like dentist waiting rooms or similar where you know there is a finite time available

  22. I’m also not a big fan of short stories. I usually feel a little cheated as I want to know more. Thing Around My Neck is one of the few short story collections I really enjoyed. I don’t think there is an optimal reading method. I like to read them in order partly cos I’m that type of person and partly cos I think that if the writer put them in a particular order, it might have been done for a reason.

  23. I start at the beginning and read through to the end – trying not to gobble them up too quickly. I’m tending to find smaller collections of stories work better for me, like the Elizabeth Bowen one I read recently. I have been to known to read them alongside a bigger book, but that doesn’t always work for me….

    • I can see the temptation to finish one and then start another immediately but I’m thinking I would need time to absorb the first one before crowding the brain with what could be a totally different setting, period, theme etc

  24. I always start from the beginning but I mix up the reading of the stories with a novel, so in other words I stop and start.

  25. I read from the beginning but little and often works for me rather than swallowing the collection whole. I tend to set them aside after reading one and let it settle. I’m a recent convert and will be interested to see how more seasoned short story readers approach it.

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