On Short Stories and College

During one of those predawn, sluggish, unknowingly pretentious conversations that thrive in college dorm rooms, a floormate brought up Edgar Allen Poe. By that point, it was late Winter Quarter, I had stopped asking, This stuff happens?
See, on the first night of my first year in college, I was alone and homesick in my dorm room. Right outside my door I heard feet shuffling and bodies settling and soon after guitars strumming. Following social protocol, I left my room to join whomever was outside because I read it’s important to make friends during your first week in college. There were about ten people crowded together in a narrow hallway. By the time I sat down, two boys had started playing “Wonderwall” by Oasis and everyone was singing along. Like summer camp. I thought, This stuff happens?
During that predawn in winter, I learned that Edgar Allen Poe kept his writing short because he thought readers should be able to finish a story in one sitting. Poe hated the thought of a story stretched out over multiple days because “the affairs of the world interfere.” Real life is distracting. Only uninterrupted reading could offer the unity that was essential to experience a story and grasp its meaning. Poe therefore stuck to his poems and short stories, which worked out alright.
At the risk of disappointing the late Mr. Poe, I hardly ever read an entire book in one sitting, though I want to work on that. I do read a lot of short stories in one sitting. Short stories are a good way to re-visit an old story without taking away from any new one to discover. They are short but dense, tricky but beautiful. I recently re-read Teddy from Salinger’s Nine Stories, and I often “recently re-read” stories from that collection. My all-time favorite is For Esmé – With Love And Squalor. In college I even told people that I wanted “Faculties Intact” tattoed on my wrist, which comes from two lines in the story, including the final one: “I hope you return from the war with all your faculties intact.” Years later I told a friend about the tattoo idea and she said it sounded like some declaration after a long stint in a psychiatric hospital. By that point, I agreed.

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  1. I think Edgar Allen Poe’s idea behind writing short stories is quite a nice idea, but I’m the same as you; I hardly ever read a novel in just one sitting. I’m not a very fast reader (perhaps because English isn’t my native language — perhaps because I’m just slow) so it takes me at least several days. I don’t read a lot of short stories either though, although I really like The Swimmer by John Cheever.

  2. 1st of all I love JD Salinger …I wanted to name my son Salinger but husband wouldn’t allow it … I love why Poe wrote short story its interesting. I will have to reread 9 stories especially Teddy ( my dogs name at least one family name reference a Salinger story.

    Thank you

  3. I really enjoyed your description of college protocol because I so remember and so relate. I agree with the comments above, I miss those conversations too.

  4. I have to admit that for some reason I am not the biggest fan of short stories. Of course, I like Poe, (who does not?!) and I read and liked Salinger, actualy even Bradbury caught me a bit, but when it comes to choosing if to buy short stories or novel I would always go with a novel. But don’t ask me why.

    But I like the idea, that short stories are better because life is interfering, so much. 🙂

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