How to Read and Why: Short Stories Retrospective

Last June, I had just barely begun book blogging. My reading was beginning to expand beyond my comfort zone (i.e., go to the library and randomly take a book with a pretty cover off the shelf) and into the world of TBR lists. When I read the preface to Harold Bloom’s How to Read and Why, I decided I needed to focus my reading. I asked myself the question:

How can I really “read” a book, even fiction, to get something out of it?

I decided to treat Bloom’s book as a textbook as I read through the works on his list, in search of the answer to that question. The How to Read and Why Reading List can be found here; all posts on Rebecca Reads relating to HTR&W can be found on the HTR&W tag.

Since I have now finished the short story portion of the HTR&W challenge, I thought I’d take the chance to revisit the project itself.

Falling Out of Love

At this point of my project, I am rather irritated at Bloom’s book. I mentioned at the beginning of this project that I was to treat him as a professor that I may disagree with. Well, I think there is a reason professors are only “your professor” for a semester: Bloom becomes rather annoying when I refer to him every month. (Note I’ve still only read through page 69 at this point; yes, after nine months.)

Part of the problem is that as he discusses his favorite short stories, he really is pompous in his assumptions and generalizations. And yet, I am still glad I chose to read his favorite short stories. They were all good in their own way. I appreciate some of Bloom’s thoughts, but at other times he becomes irritating. For example, he tends to defines a short story with one meaning; did he not say himself in his introduction that no one meaning can be assigned to a work? Each reader brings his or her own history to a book. He seems to forget his own advice as he pontificates on the stories that he considers grand.

All the same, for various reasons, I intend to continue my project in the coming months as I experience poetry, novels, and drama following Bloom’s lists. I choose Bloom’s list as an amateur reader; now that I have been blogging for a year I realize that there are many books out there that provide “Lists of Books You Should Read.” Why I chose Bloom’s book over another is a matter of timing and chance, I guess. I was moved by his preface, and in that respect, I’m still glad I chose this list as a project. Besides, it has a balance of short stories, poetry, novels, and drama, both new and old. It seems somewhat balanced to me.

I am learning a lot: but I am learning from the works themselves and not from Bloom. Isn’t that the point of this self-imposed project?

A Difficult Pleasure

In his prologue, Bloom calls reading, “the search for a difficult pleasure” (page 29). That is, by far, my favorite phrase as applied to reading. I thought about that as I struggled through The Iliad this year (thoughts here). I am thinking of that phrase now as I reread Jane Eyre (and forcing myself to slow down and enjoy the long descriptions and beautiful language). And I certainly thought about that as I read the short stories on Bloom’s list.

Many of the short stories were not favorites, but some were. I loved reading Chekhov (thoughts here and here) and Maupassant (thoughts here and here). Nabakov’s powerful writing astounded me (thoughts here). I reread Flannery O’Connor’s complete short stories (thoughts here) and I got something different out of her stories than I did before (probably a lot more since I read the stories first in high school!).

There were a few short stories I didn’t enjoy. Ernest Hemingway was challenging for me (thoughts here), and  Borges (thoughts here), Landolfi (thoughts here), and Calvino (thoughts here) were far out of my comfort zone. I didn’t feel like I “got” the stories. But as I read them, I appreciated them despite not liking them.

Timing is Everything

As I recall all of the things I read, I am struck by the timing of my reading them. I mentioned this in my post about Calvino: I think one must approach certain books at the right time in life.

I read two Ivan Turgenev’s stories (thoughts here) first. I didn’t appreciate them. I thought they were slow and dull. But I soon after read Chekhov and loved the three stories so much I read an entire collection of 25 stories; some of those were probably equally dull, and yet I gave them a chance because there were by an author who had written some stories that I had enjoyed. And in the end, I enjoyed the Chekhov stories despite the “dullness.”

I wonder: if I revisited Turgenev now, after reading so many other stories, would I appreciate them more? How much more would I appreciate his stories if I read them in another two or three years?

I feel the same way in the timing of my reading Borges, Landolfi, and Calvino. They were odd to me. Bloom puts the short stories he recommends into two categories: “Kafka-esque”/”Borgesian” and “Chekhovian.” I most certainly preferred the realism of the Chekhovian tradition. And yet, looking at the “Borgesian” stories, I wonder: if I revisit them in ten years, would I appreciate them more? At some point, it may be nice to step outside of the ordinary and visit the fantastic, imaginative worlds created by these very good short story writers.

I just am not there yet.

Bloom says himself:

[T]he best of [short stories] demand and reward many rereadings. (page 65)

I think that is something I do agree with, and that is why I plan to revisit all of these someday (yes: all of them). I truly loved Chekhov and Maupassant and Nabokov; maybe in the future I will come to love Borges and Calvino too. And even “boring” Turgenev.

What book do you think you should revisit some day because you read it at the “wrong point” of your life?

Reading Against the Clock

I still really like Bloom’s prologue the best of all of How to Read & Why that I’ve read: he reminds me that we “read against the clock” no matter what we choose. I only have a limited number of years to read, and this year/week/month/day has limited time in it in which to read. Choosing to read a book means I’m choosing not to read a different book. In the past year since I began blogging, I’ve become much more selective as to which books I pick up. I like that.

Part of that is, I think, book blogging. Because so many people are praising so many different books, my TBR has expanded 100-fold. I must make choices and it’s ended up okay. I still enjoy blogging and reading is still feeling rewarding.

At the same time, I  do think I’ve become a bit too “fast” in my reading. Because “timing” of reading a book makes a difference, I want to make sure I don’t rush through it. It is always hard to go back and reread when there is so much left unread! I should every book the benefit of the doubt on the first read by slowing down.

I feel good about what I choose to read; therefore, I should slow down and enjoy it.

How do you choose what to read? Is book blogging helping or hindering your reading goals?

Short Stories To Be Continued

I really enjoyed my foray into short stories, thanks to the HTR&W project. And yet, I think that Bloom missed a lot of great short stories. While I was reading Bloom’s list, I also read James Joyce, Edgar Allan Poe, Hawthorne, and O.Henry. I have decided I want to read many more short stories.

I plan on keeping track of my search for perfect short stories on this page.  I liked how I focused on authors by reading a collection by the authors during the HTR&W project, and I may continue to do so; or, I may read short stories and review them as individual stories.

Who are your favorite short story authors? Which are your favorite short stories?

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  1. I think any “list” is going to feel like it’s missing something, no matter whose it is. The more we read and learn, the more our own opinions will matter to us regarding what is “good”. I approach any list as an introduction or suggestions and let myself expand from there.

    I totally agree with your thoughts on “wrong time” and revisiting a book or story. “Lolita” comes to mind. I *hated* that book, but I have a feeling I’ll appreciate it more later for many different reasons. It’s hard to explain to someone why you would do that, reread books or authors you didn’t enjoy, but it all depends on your reasons for reading it in the first place. If the reason goes beyond simple entertainment, which I’m sure yours does, revisiting is at times a necessity, if for no other reason than to understand our own personal reactions to a book or story.

    I’ll shut up now. 🙂
    Lezlie

  2. To start with your last question: I am slowly working my way through a collection of Alice Munro’s short stories and I strongly suspect she will end up on my list of favorite authors. Have you ever read anything by her?

    Actually, my reading Munro is the result of my lurking around bookblogs. I have found many new books and authors through other bookblogs and I have steadily been expanding my reading, taking up books that would previously have been outside my comfort zone.

    Another writer I have started reading because of bookblogs is Virginia Woolf. Rather, she was already on my wishlist, but the blogs made me pick up one of her books sooner rather than later. I read The Waves, which is (as I found out later) not the easiest of Woolf’s books to start with. The Waves is one of those books that I read at the wrong point in my life. I don’t feel I got much out of my first reading, but at the same time I am pretty sure I will re-read it at some point when I feel better prepared for it. I am not ready yet to give up on Woolf, I have some of her other books at home.

  3. Lezlie, yes, I readily acknowledge that. Someone created the list, and it wasn’t me. I am learning much and enjoying the lists I do have!

    I have not read Lolita yet for that very reason. Maybe in a few more years?

    Don’t shut up. I love discussion!

    Myrthe, I have never read Alice Munro; sounds like a winner. I have found that book blogging is likewise introducing me to new writers: case in point!

    Ladytink, is that a novel you read at the wrong time or a favorite short story? not sure which question you were answering. What did you enjoy or not enjoy about it?

  4. This may sound selfish of me, but I’m secretly glad that you are having trouble with Bloom – I was concerned that it was just me! I tried the audio version of his book and had to quit early on as it was just too irritating.

    But I do love your commitment to this project and I very much enjoy reading your posts. I’m glad you’ll be keeping it up in spite of the hard work it requires.

  5. Heather J., In retrospect, I feel rather foolish for having chosen Bloom’s book so blindly: I really did not realize how many (thousands?) of book lists there are out there. As I said, I started this project when I hadn’t really been blogging very long. Since then, I’ve heard so many people critiquing Bloom for being irritating, among other things.

    All that said, I committed myself to this project, and while I’m still overwhelmed with the works on the list, I’m making progress and I’m still going to do it.

  6. I couldn’t agree with you more regarding Bloom. He did choose some wonderful works to include in this book. However, he often feels that he is above his own advice. The advice is for the rest of us. 😉

  7. I read Bloom’s How to read and why earlier this year. I agree with you that the prologue is the best part of the book. Right now I’m reading Jane Eyre for school and trying to balance reading at a speedy pace with savoring the great passages.

    There are many short story writers I’ve enjoyed Lauren Groff, Raymond Carver, James Baldwin, Melanie Rae
    Thon. . .

    I think blogging helps and hinders by reading. It helps by showing me great examples of books outside of my comfort zone but hinders by having the pressure to hurry and write a review when I’m feeling the need to reread a book before reviewing.

  8. Lisa, yes, now I understand why he is considered conceited. It’s rather an understatement.

    Vasilly, Completely understand the blogging dilemma. Enjoy Jane Eyre as much as you can, and thanskf or the short story names. I’ll go add them to the list.

  9. It was a novel that I read at the wrong time I hope.. I believe it was just too descriptive for me at that time. I’ve heard that others really loved it or the abriged version though.

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