Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 30 Jul 2020

Is this my summer of the short story?

At the very start of ‘lockdown’ (or more ominously perhaps, ‘lockdown one’) I wrote a piece for this website saying how hard I was finding it to read, especially those big consequential novels I always promised I was saving until I had acres of uncommitted time rolling out in front of me. I simply found it impossible to concentrate on anything that demanded a long term commitment – you know the sort of thing I mean, big books with big ideas and 800 pages of involvement.

Well, I’d like to say that as lockdown has eased so my reading focus has improved too - but in truth it hasn’t. Being able to move around in limited ways, masked and still keeping a distance from others has simply transferred the anxiety to a different sphere rather than banished it. My concentration is still shot to pieces and the oddness of shared social spaces and the inherent wariness you have to have of those you share the space with, doesn’t make going out an entirely enjoyable experience. All this feeds back into my fragile concentration and sense of unease in a way that has, if anything, made my willingness to engage with big reads less rather than more likely.

So, although I still read plenty, I’m always on the lookout for books that keep their page counts under the 300 figure and quite a bit shorter if possible. That’s actually a bit harder than in sounds because, as I and others have commented, book lengths have been going through a period of inflation. There seems to be a ‘fatter the better’ tendency at work which is not unlike the inflation in size that took hold of the Victorian novel – maybe there’s an academic study needed here into the social circumstances that create a fashion for big, fat books?

You, dear reader, will almost certainly be screaming at me that an obvious answer is at hand for this dilemma – the art of the short story. And, yes, it stares  me in the face too - but I have a problem with it because I have never been that much of a fan of the short story form. Unlike novels which are big and baggy enough to allow for all sorts of misdemeanours by the author, short stories are such a disciplined and precise art form that I have found there are relatively few authors I trust to get that right. When they work, they work spectacularly well but when they misfire there is nothing less satisfying. They often feel to me that they are poised somewhere between caterpillar and butterfly, waiting for a metamorphosis into something more grand.

So, I have decided it’s time to confront these prejudices and begin to explore the short story and its exponents in a more satisfying way. I know there are writers who specialise in nothing but the short story and those who dabble and who are, by critical acclaim, thought to do it well and so I’m going to start with some of the bigger names in the short story genre and some of the high profile stories that have become part of the better known short story pantheon. I don’t have a map or a plan for this reading adventure and I’m letting happenstance lead the way with Daphne Du Maurier’s ‘The Birds and other stories’ – which I have just found in a copy of the first Penguin edition with a brilliant cover by Virgil Burnett.

A full review with doubtless follow in due course – as will others as I dip further into the pool of stories.


Terry Potter

July 2020.