How To Read Short Stories

This may sound like an odd post, and to be honest, the title is more of a test run to see what effect certain phrases have on search terms etc, but that is a post for later.
As bizarre as it may sound however, I do actually have a post that relates to the title.

Just yesterday I was talking to a friend of mine, a colleague no less, who I had convinced to try some Stephen King. One of the books that I convinced her to buy was Skeleton Crew, a collection of short stories that are some of my favorite King shorts;

  • The Mist
  • Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut
  • The Raft
  • Survivor Type (Possibly one of the most disturbing and stomach churning pieces of fiction I have ever read).
  • The Ballard of the Flexible Bullet

While talking to said colleague just yesterday, I asked her if she had started to read of the books she had bought. She said yes, but then, as the conversation developed she said that she not only was not reading the stories in order, but she wasn’t even reading the whole collection before moving on to something else.

Maybe this is just me, but I fell ill at ease the rest of the conversation. It just didn’t sit right with me that someone can read a collection of short stories out-of-order. I can cope with the reading other things around it, because I have done that on occasion myself. However, to read them out-of-order just seems and feel utterly wrong to me. It was like someone raking their fingers down a chalkboard.

I read the last story first, then the first story in the middle… argh, make it stop!!!

I did however, manage to pull myself out of my terminal velocity plunge into insanity and ponder the question … ‘is she alone?’

I would never dream about reading a book out-of-order, but what about you?
I mean sure, there is no rule that says you cannot read short stories in any order you wish, but … I don’t know. Maybe I’m just a bit odd.
This also led me to ponder the different types of short story collections, the single author variety, and the multiple author anthologies. Is there a different approach that needs to be considered when reading these, can they be held apart from each other in reading rules?

Tell me, pleasure, am I just nuts, or does it seem wrong to read a book in an order that is not that with which is was produced?

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13 thoughts on “How To Read Short Stories

  1. I would never even dream of reading a book out of order. I don’t care if it’s a novel, a story collection or what have you. I don’t even listen to CD’s out of order. Great post, Alex!

  2. I always read anthologies straight through. I might read a story, go one to a novel, and then go back to the anthology, but I always pick up where I left off. I’ve heard so many people complain about TOCs on Kindle editions not being active and they have to scroll through to get to the story they want, whether is be because the title appeals to them more than others in the collection, or it might be by a preferred author. My thinking is, just keep reading and you’ll get there. After hearing those comments, I thought I was alone in that I read straight through.

    1. I agree with you Michael. I have to admit, I never use the table of contents on the kindle. Ok, I lie, I look at it, but don’t navigate with it or anything. I start at the start and end at the end. Not only because it is ordered and I like that, but because I like to believe that the stories have been set that way for a reason.

      Thanks a lot of dropping by. It is refreshing to see I am not alone in this. 🙂

  3. As an anthology editor, I can tell you that a lot of thought and time goes into the ordering of stories. It’s very important to get the balance right and to ensure that the anthology reads well from start to finish. I’m not horrified by people reading the stories in the wrong order, but I would argue the overall experience is degraded. Mostly though, I’m happy that people have bought it and are reading it!

    My latest anthology is shared-world, so it has to be read in order for the overall storyline to make sense.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment Richard. I am currently editing a couple of collections of my own work, and am putting a lot of thought into the story placement. Having had this above referenced conversation, I am contemplating putting a little disclaimer in the opening pages, above the TOC maybe, advising that the book is best enjoyed when read in its published order.

  4. lol – I’m going to be a dissenting voice here! I don’t normally read short stories or short story collections but when I do I start with the TOC [in print] and read the authors I know and like first. Then I might go back and ‘try’ some of the unknowns. Same with music CDs, unless I already know that I adore the artist. Novels however are page by page, no skimming, no peeking at the end, just a steady progression. 😀

  5. Yeah I think you’re a bit odd! It seems to me that most short story collections are ordered either chronologically or in an unspecified ‘aesthetic’ order. Unless the stories are related I can’t see how it would matter; it’s not like reading the chapters of a novel out of order. Personally I rarely read the whole of a short story collection in one go – I prefer to dip in and out, come back to the collection later. I find reading a series of short stories by the same author mainly makes me want to read one of their novels – so I do. Also – what about collections with stories by different writers – I might get the collection solely for the one story (as in my lovely collection of everything John Wyndham ever wrote).

  6. When I read Thomas Ligotti’s collection, ‘Teatro Grottesco’, I was so blown away by the first story, ‘Purity’, that I read it three times in a row before continuing through the book. That is somewhat out of order, I guess, (slam the gavel! “You’re out of Order!”). There are some collections by multi-authors that I don’t read all the stories, I’m a finicky reader.

  7. I think short story collections should be read in order. It’s ESPECIALLY important in books like mine, referred to in the industry as a “story cycle” (each stands independent, but together they comprise a novel with a beginning, middle and end). Reading them out of order would confuse any reader! Olive Kitteridge, Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing and Delaney’s People are good examples.

  8. Well I usually read everything from front to back however it doesn’t irratte me if people don’t – I wonder at them sometimes when they say they have read the end first! but each to their own I say – reading isn’t a set of rules it’s (fictionwise) supposed to be pleasure and we all enjoy eating the chocolate coated biscuit differently – I put quite a bit of effort into the order each story appears but really it is to suit my idea of the arrangement, others have differing ideas – just as long as they read them – that’s really all I, as an author, want:)

    1. You speak the truth Aleberta, there are no hard and fast rules set up that tell us how to read. If people enjoy reading, I will never tell them to change their methods, because enjoyment is what it is all about. As long as they enjoy my writing and keep buying it, and enjoying it, then they can read it upside down if they want to. Thanks for dropping by.

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