Do People Still Read Short Stories?

Yesterday I read, “43 of the Most Iconic Short Stories in the English Language” by Emily Temple over at Literary Hub. Her essay begins 

Last year, I put together this list of the most iconic poems in the English language; it’s high time to do the same for short stories. But before we go any further, you may be asking: What does “iconic” mean in this context? Can a short story really be iconic in the way of a poem, or a painting, or Elvis?

Well, who knows, but for our purposes, “iconic” means that the story has somehow wormed its way into the general cultural consciousness—a list of the best short stories in the English language would look quite different than the one below.

I was able to look up her 43 titles on the internet and found most of them available to read online. I assume that’s because those stories are taught in schools and colleges and teachers have put them online as pdf files so their students can read them for an assignment. I doubt that’s legal, but it’s convenient for me.

Are these stories iconic because a captive audience has been made to study them? Does forced cultural literary constitute a kind of fandom? I’m sure Emily Temple and I are the kind of book nerds that love these stories, but just how many other people do?

I went to Amazon looking for anthologies that might contain these stories. I assumed if they were iconic then they’d be readily available, but they weren’t. The only anthology I found that had more than a couple of these stories is an old one I already owned. It had 7 of the 43, which is pretty good. That volume, The Art of the Short Story edited by Dana Gioia and R. S. Gwynn is probably a textbook, but it seems to be out-of-print. I found a few other textbooks that had some of the 43 stories, but at most three. However, the same authors are anthologized over and over again, so there seems to be disagreement as to what their best stories might be.

This still leaves me thinking Emily Temple’s 43 iconic stories aren’t that iconic outside of hardcore bookworms. These stories definitely aren’t iconic like Classic Rock albums or the old TV shows that rerun on MeTV or TVLand which have tens of millions of fans across generations.

I added the 43 stories to a Google Sheet and put in links to where I found the stories online. I plan to read them all. I also plan to add other lists of “iconic” short stories to this spreadsheet, and read them too.

Last night I read “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe. It was a bit of horror fluff that didn’t have much to say philosophically, nor did it reveal anything about life in 1843 America. I can’t believe we make children read it. There’s got to be better Poe to force onto younsters. 

On the other hand, rereading “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omeleas” by Ursula K. Le Guin is intensely philosophical and I imagine an excellent story to trick teens into thinking about deep concepts.

How many people still read short stories after they leave school? Probably damn few. That isn’t to say that Edgar Allan Poe or Eudora Welty don’t have their fans, but are their followers a large enough crowd to swing over the needle of a pop culture meter when mentioned on Jeopardy? Well, some Jeopardy contestants would be the kind of folks to read short stories.

More and more, I’m getting into short stories. I’m reading over three hunded of them a year. But it also feels like I’m withdrawing from reality. My friends want to talk about novels, or movies, or TV shows — and I can’t. And they aren’t interested in discussing short stories.

I imagine kids when assigned to read short stories today feel about the same way as we did when forced to do quardratic equations back in our school days. No, I don’t think the word iconic applies to Emily Temple’s list of old short stories. But what’s the right word?

I wonder if that word is in the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows? I wish I knew Greek and Latin so I could make up a word for loving art forms going extinct. Or a word for cherishing fadding pop culture successes of the past. Anachronostalgia? 

It has been said that writers write to become immortal, but that immortality only lasts as long as people continue to read what they wrote. What’s a word for keeping old works of art alive? It’s kind of a good deed, don’t you think? Of course, not as good as helping a real person in need, but it’s still a kindly thing to do.

JWH

Can I Discipline Myself to Be More Disciplined?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, August 3, 2020

The older I get the more undisciplined I get, but it’s an age when I need to be the most disciplined in life. As anyone who is getting older knows, the body begins to fall apart and the mind unravels. One way to counter this natural tendency is to get disciplined. But there’s a Catch-22. There’s also a growing impulse with aging to not give a fuck.

It’s taken me years to give up junk food — well, mostly. But I’m not sure if it’s being disciplined. If I indulge my body finds various ways to beat me up. So I’ve learned to mostly not do the things that cause immediate suffering. However, I can’t seem to learn to do the things that will improve my health or allow me to do more. I feel like I’m in a never ending trench war — I can’t take any new territory, and for the moment, I’m barely holding what territory I’ve have. Aging means losing territory. Discipline determines how fast.

I know defeat is the ultimate outcome. Death will eventually be the light at the end of the damn tunnel. But until then I have a finite number of days and I’m positive if I was more disciplined I could get greater use out of those days. The trouble is, when you’re old you just want to relax and take it easy, to float downstream. To get more out of life has always required paddling upstream against the current. That requires discipline.

For example I want to lose weight. I’ve been fighting the Battles of the Bulge for decades. I should just give up. I know plenty of people who have. But I have health problems and I know if I can lose weight it will counteract those health issues to a degree, or help delay them getting worse. For the past two years I’ve been doing the 16:8 intermittent fasting. Years ago I lost 30 pounds by going vegan, but I just couldn’t maintain that diet. When I went back to just being vegetarian I started gaining my weight back. When I saw that happening I switched to the 16:8 intermittent fasting, and stopped gaining weight. But I had already gained back 25 pounds. 16:8 means I eat 8 hours during the day and fast 16. If I do it without eating junk food I’ll even lose about 1 pound a month. However, I usually can’t avoid completely junk food, so I don’t lose that pound.

I’ve recently started throwing in a whole fasting day, and I’ve fought my way back down the scales by 7-8 pounds in a couple months. That’s very encouraging. If I can maintain that discipline I might be able to fight my way back down to my previous low, and even lose more weight. That could help a lot. But to go that day (actually 40 hours) without eating takes so much effort. I’m writing this today to help me get through not eating until tomorrow. (By the way, fasting actually makes me feel better in many ways — except for the not eating part.)

I’m fighting several other battles that require greater discipline. I’ve had a dream of getting a science fiction story published almost my whole life. The odds of succeeding at my age are extremely tiny, but I haven’t let the dream die yet. I know what’s required to do the work. It’s the discipline to stick to writing. Writing fiction is hard. I can write blog essays all day long with no trouble, but then I’ve put in my ten thousand hours. I’ve only logged several hundred hours writing fiction, and I need to put in several thousand more to take off. That will require developing a routine like I have with intermittent fasting.

The last thing I’ll mention, because I don’t want this essay to go on forever, is the idea of disciplined learning. I’ve written before how I’m a news junky, but I realize that’s not getting me where I want to go. A steady diet of constantly changing news items is a wasteful way of using my time. I do learn stuff, and I’m better informed than when not reading the news, but it’s like eating potato chips, not very nutritious.

I’ve been developing a new theory about news and learning. Instead of trying to cover any topic that comes along, I should pick just the topics I want to get know better. For example, I’m reading So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo, a well-written, carefully thought out book about a specific subject. What’s impressive about Oluo’s book is she set out to write something useful and worked to clearly define the problem of race. Her book made me realize I should focus on specific topics, such as Black Lives Matter, but go deeper than reading daily news reports.

I need to pick the newsworthy subjects I want to embrace and focus on them, while ignoring the firehose of all the rest. Logically, I know I neither have the time or energy to study many subjects. Since I realized that I’ve been paying attention to the news items I read each day. Most are quickly forgotten. Most are not worth my time on in the first place — they are like the evil calories of junk food. But disciplining my news intake is a lot like dieting — I need to give up junk news. That’s going to be hard. I have no practice at that, and I know from dieting that it takes a lot of failures before I can develop any discipline momentum.

It would be so much easier to kick back in my La-Z-Boy, eat oatmeal chocolate chip cookies from the deli at Sprouts, and watch old episodes of Gunsmoke. It’s pleasant, it’s enjoyable, it’s fun. But what does it get me beyond that? There are still things I want out of life, and to get them I must start paddling upstream against the current again.

[This is for my wife Susan, who I think needs to get back to paddling too.]

JWH

Will Americans Ever Be United?

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, July 30, 2020

We might be the United States, but we’re hardly a united people. Hasn’t the melting pot of the world produced a particularly unhomogenized population?

If you pick any year in our history and study it, divisiveness is the norm. This has got me to wondering, are there topics of agreement that we mostly share?

For example, if we pass a law that means we want 100% of the people to abide by the law. Yet, a law can be passed by only a fraction of the population. Does it really make sense for 50% of the people to say how 100% of the people should act? But we’ll probably never get 100% agreement on anything. So, shouldn’t we think harder about what percentage of the vote equals a proper majority?

Would it be fair to require an 80% majority? That would still mean 20% of the population would oppose the law and would probably be unhappy. But it would also mean 80% of the population would be happy.

What we have is a happiness v. unhappiness ratio. Right now, we have a 50/50 ratio, which explains why our society is so polarized. Wouldn’t America be somewhat happier with a 60/40 ratio? And even happier with a 75/25 ratio?

We’re never going to have a 100% happy society. But shouldn’t we try to reduce the unhappy portion of the equation? My guess if we agreed to make 60% the required majority to win any vote, we’d see a shift in the contentment of the nation.

Ideally though, we’d eventually need to increase that to 75%, but right now that would be an impossibility. Just developing a 60% consensus would take a tremendous effort, mainly in learning how to make compromises.

Is It Time To Ditch News Feed Apps?

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, July 25, 2020

The sad truth is I’m a Flipboard addict. And if I’m really jonesing for news, I’ll also check Apple News and Google News. I compulsively tap my iPhone several times a day for more new news, speed reading through dozens of digital essays and news stories every day. But Flipboard is starting to irritate me with all its ads, and more than that, my comprehension skills are deteriorating.

Although the internet is instant, smartphones are convenient, and news feed apps are comprehensive, I’m not sure they are the best conduits of news. Oh, they definitely get me more news from a greater variety of sources updated by the second, but I’m not sure its the best way to stay informed. And I’m not sure if it’s not becoming abusive to my neurons.

People often say less is more. News feed apps work on the principle of sending you news customized for your interests. Often content is barely more than blurbs with ads, and generally the same information is repeated or restated by countless news outlets, sources, and publishers. There is lots of substantial content, but lately, more than not, it’s behind a paywall.

I’m reading in a hyperactive mental state, gobbling down facts in a frantic effort stay informed. But am I? I’m starting to wonder if I read less if I’d be more informed?

Could carefully choosing my own news sources be the wiser path? Could a couple of newspapers and a handful of magazines, digital or print, offer a better news experience than a news feed service? I don’t know, but I’m thinking about trying the route. I just don’t know if I can break the news feed app habit.

I’m also tempted to go back to printed magazines and newspapers for some of that reading. The cost of printing tends to control what is printed. And I’m also wondering if reading less from a slower source might be advantageous. I really have no answers right now, but my hunch at the moment is pushing me to read less news on my iPhone. However, I’m not sure I can give up that much convenience.

It occurs to me now that I actually enjoyed TV more when there were only three networks. And music was more fun when I could only afford to buy one new album a week. Maybe there’s a downside to convenient abundance.

JWH

There’s No Modesty at the Urologist

James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, July 15, 2020

I awoke from the anesthesia with a tremendous urge to pee. I might have already been telling the nurse that before I was conscious because she was holding a plastic bottle up to my penis. I was trying to get up and she was urging me to lie back. I was in the middle of the action and not remembering why. Then I recalled I had been put under general anesthesia for a biopsy on my bladder. The last thing I remember was the oxygen mask.

I desperately wanted to pee, but the only thing going into the bottle was thick blood. My mind was clearing fast and I realized my hope of getting home quickly wasn’t going to happen. We had arrived at the clinic at six for a seven o’clock procedure. The clock now said eight. Susan and I had talked about how great it would be if we could have gotten home by nine.

That wasn’t going to happen. Something had gone wrong. All I could think was “I wish I wasn’t here” but I knew my wishing was wasted thinking. I wanted to pray, “God, get me out of this” but I’m atheist and I knew my prayers wouldn’t be answered even if I was a believer. I had to deal with things as they were.

I could not escape my situation and I knew how I handled it depended entirely on controlling my thoughts. Pain is so focusing. It was unreal waking up in this bizarre situation. I told myself this was just a bad trip I had to ride out and what I was experiencing was nothing compared to all the thousands of Covid patients were experiencing, much less people having cancer or heart attacks. Don’t whine, deal.

Still, I was doubling up in pain telling the nurse I had to go. She kept saying, use the urinal (which was only a plastic bottle). I told her it might help if I could sit on a toilet. I was in a recovery area with four or five bays behind curtains where patients were either being prepped for surgery or recovering. I thought for a second about modesty and then didn’t care. The nurse help wrap me up in my hospital gown and walked me to the bathroom. She put a plastic catcher over the rim of the commode before putting down the seat. She told me to pee into it because the doctor would want to see the results.

It was somewhat calming to be sitting in the bathroom by myself. I kept hoping pee would flush out all the blood, but it didn’t. All I could produce was blood as thick as Campbell’s soup just out of the can. And no matter how much blood I produced didn’t relieve the overwhelming urge to pee. I knew I needed a catheter and that’s something I’ve always dreaded. Again, it was all too obvious that what I wanted and what would happen was two different things.

I knocked on the door to get the nurse and told her it was no luck. She took me back to my bed and I begged for a catheter, but she already knew what I would want and need and had one ready. She asked if I wanted to be numbed first, I told her no, just do it, that I was dying to pee. So, she did. Six hours later, after flushing three bags of water through my system to clear out the blood I was able to go home with a catheter still in me. Unfortunately, this was Thursday and it was a three-day weekend because of the 4th of July. I’d had to live with the catheter until Monday.

Those four days were very educational. Pain is the perfect Zen Master. When a student’s mind wanders the Zen Master will whack their shoulders with a bamboo cane. The tube up my urethra would zap me with pain if I didn’t pay perfect attention. Luckily, the bladder spasms would only last five to ten seconds. I’d have to clutch something and kick the floor until they stopped.

My purpose here is not to bellyache about my pain, I know too many people who suffer far greater. No, I bring up this yucky incident to show how it affected my thought processes. The first title I had for this essay was “Thinking Clearly.” But I decided it was too boring to catch people’s attention. Then I thought of using “Pain is the Zen Master” but doubted it would attract much attention either. Then “There’s No Modesty at the Urologist” came to me and knew it was the kind of title that some people would click on. One of my most popular posts was “Losing My Modesty” about when three women holding me down to cut off a skin growth near my genitals.

I realized while in recovery that I needed to think clearly. Panic, fear, self-pity, anger, bargaining would not get me out of the situation. But neither would magical thinking of wishing or praying. And I realize that many of my thoughts were delusional or led to false assumptions. Making imaginary bargains, extrapolating from poor data, or speculating about the possibilities just generated endless possibilities that would never happen.

Let me give you one concrete example. Because I had a pain spasm every time my catheter was pulled or pushed I imagined that it was stuck to wounds within my urethra where healing and scabbing was taking place. I worried that pulling it out would be immensely painful, reopening the healing sites. I feared I’d need another catheter put right back in. I worried and thought about this for three days. Then Monday, the doctor pulled it right out with no pain, no fuss, and no bleeding. In other words, I worried for nothing.

In three days I theorized about endless possibilities — both positive and negative. Most of those thoughts was wasted thinking. As I wrote about earlier in “Expecting the Unexpected” I can’t predict the future. We can observe data to a small degree and act on it in small ways, but not in significant ways. For example, as my urine bag filled up I’d feel the need to pee. It would wake me up in the night just like when my bladder fills up. But I knew when I opened the tap on the urine bag the draining out of the urine would make a suction that caused a pain spasm. I deduced if I disconnected the bag’s hose to the catheter first that suction action wouldn’t affect me. That’s how far I could predict the future. Not much, huh?

Another example, I went back to the urologist on the 13th to hear the results of the biopsy. Of course, even though I’m not superstitious, I worried that might be a bad day to hear the report.

When the doctor told me I needed a biopsy weeks ago I realized that any speculation would be meaningless until I got the results. The answer would be like Schrodinger’s Cat — unknowable until I opened it. On the 13th the doctor told me the biopsy was clear. That was a huge relief. I can’t say I didn’t worry, but not much, most I spent a lot of time trying to imagine what I would do if the lab report had been positive.

We all think too much. We have so little control. We want to believe we have magical powers to control reality with our wishes, but we don’t. I know this, but I still wasted a lot of time on endless useless thinking. Another example, while waiting for my results I craved sweets, but I was afraid to eat them because I thought it would cause the biopsy to come back positive. When I saw the floor was dirty I thought if I don’t sweep it immediately my biopsy will come back positive. I know such thinking is crazy, yet knowing that doesn’t stop such thoughts.

We live in a highly deterministic reality even though we want to believe that mind over matter works. Religious people use the word faith but it’s use is not exclusive to theology. Throughout this whole process I kept trying to outthink my doctor even though I know nothing of urology. The reality is I have to put faith in modern medicine. I can’t think my way around it. I don’t have any alternatives. I’d love if prayer work and a personal God was taking care of me like my nurse, but there’s just no evidence for that. I’d love if I had great mental powers so my will could alter reality to my whims, but there is no evidence for that either.

Even the simple desire for modesty was beyond my control. My nurse saved me that day. She attended to all my needs while also helping others. She rushed from bay to bay but was always there when I needed help, which was often. She didn’t always close the curtain and I thought about saying something, but I realized it was too petty, too nothing. It was only my thoughts that made me worry about modesty. So I let it go. If people walking by wanted to look at me I didn’t care. Actually, I felt sorry for them having to see a old guy with a bloody tube coming out of his dick. That must have been revolting.

When it was all over I understood it was just a big painful inconvenience, the pain had been bearable. I could survive because I did. At the time I told myself I never wanted this to happen again. I still need my prostate trimmed, so I need to go through this all over again. And I will.

I don’t know if I can apply the lessons I’ve learned to the next time. I might still worry needlessly, still try to bargain, pray, read omens, and act on superstitions. The reality is we might never be able to control our thoughts even when we know they are wasted thoughts. Can we ever just accept reality?

This Covid crisis is a parallel example. Too many people want to reject reality and act on magical thinking. I keep hoping our whole society will become rational and think clearly, but isn’t that wishful thinking too? Especially, if I can’t think clearly myself.

JWH