Why you should care
Because if you need a quick dose of the literary, you can swing these on your lunch break.
The OZY Summer Reading Series: Each week we share a specially themed book list, chosen by OZY staff.
For some reason, English teachers often have a habit of teaching middle schoolers short stories before novels. A slightly absurd choice, given that some may argue the short story is a grand literary challenge — to write, and sometimes to read. That difficulty, though, is a reason to celebrate wildly upon discovering any short story that combines complexity with enormous readability. Here are a few of our favorites, all available for free online, and all great ways to grab a high-intensity dose of the literary in under an hour.
“The Semplica-Girl Diaries”
by George Saunders
Saunders has lived quite the life — an engineer with a blue-collar background, he wrote his first book, Civilwarland in Bad Decline, in large part while pretending to work at a shitty desk job. His most recent short story collection earned him a drippingly sweet profile in The New York Times Magazine, but you should skip that in favor of reading one of its most haunting tales about a suburban family who wants nothing more than to get the new hot lawn decoration — women imported from forlorn nations. Saunders is the kind of guy who can trick you into reading about a dystopian future (and laughing at it); by the time you realize it’s uncanny, you’re in way deep and your world might quake a little. Check out “The Semplica-Girl Diaries,” which Saunders spent about 12 years writing, at The New Yorker. If you like him, venture into Civilwarland and try “The Wavemaker Falters.”
by Jorge Luis Borges
For those who know their Borges, this is a story that might elicit a little laugh of familiarity. The guy’s at his finest here: esoteric and meta. But also mournful. The story is dotted with reminders of a now-deceased character, and not grievances of the boring type. Loss of a person here begets a spiritual cum psychedelic meditation. Borges might be just about the closest thing the modern reader gets to a mythologist. Only for him, the spirits worth calling forth are less gods than they are mystical symbols.
“Something That Needs Nothing”
by Miranda July
For anyone who has dreamed of running away from home Moonrise Kingdom-style, think of July’s short story as a funky grown-up version of the Boxcar Children. A hugely goose bump-inducing love story with a splash of Bildungsroman in there for good measure, this short story covers everything from unrequited affection to the excitement of imagining a professional future and a subsequent plummet into disenchantment: “Everything we had always thought of as ‘The World’ was actually the result of someone’s job. Each line on the sidewalk, each saltine.” Oh, and if you needed an extra pitch, July’s guest-starred on Portlandia. Hipsta approved.
by Haruki Murakami
Murakami is beloved for a reason. The guy has an affinity for cats, often talking ones. He never spares an extra word where he doesn’t need one. And few people can turn such sparse, Hemingwayesque sentences into strange poetic epics that you could argue are the great folk tales of our time. Probably better known for his novels like The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Kafka on the Shore, Murakami pens short stories in between the longer stuff, sometimes using them as launching points for the next book. This is a fun one. For the first few pages, you’d be forgiven for thinking the guy is straight-up messing with you: He begins, “The ‘I’ here, you should know, means me, Haruki Murakami, the author of this story.” On he goes to blabber a wackily simple story about coincidence and the small magic it creates in everyday life. From a writer who plays with enchantment in his novels so much, a totally realist story about a smaller kind of magic is a downright historic document.