Shortness of breath: Ten Stories

The following are ten, wonderful short stories that are available to read online. I have chosen them because they represent different literary periods and are told with different voices and new types of language. I could have selected 50, but I'll leave you with this for today. Consume them all together, or sift through them with a slow hand. But certainly don’t underestimate them for their brevity—it’s always the fleeting things that leave us winded. Learn the language of shortness of breath, and lap it up with page-stained tongues.

Hint: Click on the title to be directed to the story.

James Joyce, The dead

If you haven’t read any of Joyce’s great beasts yet, consider this your toy-box introduction. The Dead carries all the weight of his other works but will not give you carpal tunnel from leafing through the pages. It's also a great dive into Modernist literature's themes and nightmares: centered around a party it conveys a sense of impending tragedy, demonstrates the fragmentation of reality and internal perception, and culminates in an epiphanic moment that brings forward ideas of mortality, rebirth and resurrection. It was one of my first forays into the Modernist sensibility and I’m still in love with it. Read this story with today's zeitgeist in mind and see what it tells you about this "less spacious age"—perhaps we’ve always been trying to crawl out of that creaky modernist vessel.  

John Cheever, The Country Husband

I could have directed you to The Swimmer, but I’m partial to The Country Husband in this case. The story follows Francis Weed, a suburban businessman who survives a plane crash at the beginning of the story, only to return home and find that his family is too busy with their evening rituals to care. What follows for Francis after his incident is a blend of fantasy and reality, where reveries prevail over the physical world and at nightfall men can climb snow-capped mountains and ride elephants like kings. This is what Cheever does best, cloaking the mundane in the absurd and extraordinary—often leaving us unsettled along the way.

Amy Hempel, In the cemetery where al jolson is buried

If you haven’t yet read Tumble Home, pick it up this weekend and devour it like dry earth that breaks open for wetness—because it will require an opening and in the end it will devour you instead. I read Hempel for the prose and her brilliant, infuriating skill with metaphor: “She laughs, and I cling to the sound the way someone dangling above a ravine holds fast to the thrown rope.” Within this short story and inside her terse, but witty and tender language there is more understanding of grief than anywhere we could go looking for it, should we least expect its advances upon us in the meantime.

George Saunders, The Semplica-Girl Diaries

From the structure, to the language and the story itself I don’t think I’ll ever forget the imagery that this narrator and his Semplica girls left behind. No one quite paints a world like Saunders, and adopts the language so masterfully to match that vision. The diary entries that inform this story chronicle both the banality of days and major themes of oppression, aspiration, covetousness, and the sadness that often comes with being responsible for another’s success or happiness.

Raymond Carver, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

At times reading a Carver story feels like discovering the bones of something meaningful and hoping there is more. His spare prose and brisk way with developing story off the page can feel a bit jarring. But I deplore you to let Carver punch you around a bit with his craft; a few days later you’ll find that his stories are still clattering around in your ribcage. From the collection of short stories of the same name, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is one of his most famous stories and has an ending I could never forget, even if I tried. 

Ernest Hemingway, The Snows of Kilimanjaro

Mortality. Drink. Women. Sex. Discontentment. Love. The consequences of money. And masculinity while we're at it. The artist’s burden to create, and the desire to somehow endure. That corporeal grappling with time and belief (in anything) and the willingness to write about it in a world that has numbered our days. It’s classic Ernest, and it’s always worth a revisit to the mountains that have slain us. 

Flannery O'Connor, A Good Man is Hard To Find

The queen of the Southern Gothic will twist you into knots with this story that begins like comedic satire and quickly moves into tragedy. If goodness is only momentary, is it goodness at all? And what place does grace have in the same sentence as evil? Find out for yourself, for the beauty of this story is reading it for the first time and letting the story's moral terror sink into you like a field's first plow.

Dave Eggers, About the Man Who Began Flying After Meeting Her

How apt a hand that crafts whimsy, hope, love, adventure, weightlessness, obsession and a sense of impending sadness in just 377 words. It's worth the few minutes it will take you to read.

Virginia Woolf, Monday or Tuesday

Everyone should have a lurid affair with Virginia’s prose at some point and this artful stream of consciousness bares her signature—the weight of time, an unmet desire for truth, and the use of color, nature and everyday surroundings to demonstrate a yearning for something more than this moment in time, perfectly kept. If the prose isn’t for you, at least consider the punctuation; it's an art form.

Vladimir Nabokov, Symbols and Signs

Call it a weakness, but I’ll never be able to compile a list on writing without including Nabokov. Very little happens in this story, but every moment and object inches us further toward calamity—the hospital, the missing keys, jam, soiled playing cards and phone calls. And yet, there isn’t anything that Nabokov doesn’t make sing on the page, including jam apparently. But it’s the symbols and signs themselves that one should look out for—are they the story itself, or are they empty talismans that distract us from a much more pressing narrative at hand?

A Disclaimer

These are not the ten best (how could we ask that of them?), nor are they the only (there is a menagerie of worlds like this we could fill our heady days with). A special note of “I really wish I had more than ten stories” goes out to Franza Kafka, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ray Bradbury, Jayne Anne Phillips, Sherman Alexie, Lydia Davis and so many countless others.