The Joy of an Old Story

One of the most unexpected benefits of starting this little publishing company has been my discovery of how much I enjoy reading old short stories. When this company was brand new, I decided to publish a few anthologies of classic short stories to provide some extra titles in my catalog. I published what I call Taster Flights – collections of short stories that all share a similar theme. I like how reading the stories together makes me notice aspects I might have missed if I read them individually. The effect is similar to how a taster flight of beer or wine can help you notice subtle undertones in the individual drinks.

I didn’t have any particular stories in mind when I made this decision: I hadn’t read classic short stories since school. So I started reading… and I haven’t stopped, even though Annorlunda’s catalog of new works has now grown to the point that I don’t really need to publish more Taster Flights. Now, I turn the my favorite of the stories I find into episodes of my Inbox Stories newsletter, which currently comes out quarterly.

I have been thinking about why I enjoy reading old short stories so much. There are so many wonderful new short stories coming out right now, I could easily fill my short story reading time with nothing but new material. Yet I find myself reaching for old stories frequently. It is not that they are better than new short stories – I find clunkers as well as gems in both types of story. I think the reason I find the old stories so compelling is that they function like a type of time machine, allowing me to visit the past. For instance, reading Edna Ferber’s stories (one of which, The Leading Lady, is included in the Taster Flight Hemmed In) gives me a feel for what life as a single woman trying to make a life in a city was like in the early 1900s. Willa Cather’s stories (The Bohemian Girl is also included in Hemmed In) transport me to the midwestern plains in the same time period, with the extra poignancy that I can see shadows of my own ancestors in many of her characters, and The Other Man’s Wife, by James Oliver Curwood (one of the stories in Love and Other Happy Endings) gives a window into the allure of being a back-country trapper at the time.

This window into the past is imperfect: What we can see is limited by the stories that were published and have been preserved. I started looking more specifically for a wider range of voices. I found the African-American writer Charles W. Chesnutt, and his story The Passing of Grandison is one of my favorite episodes of Inbox Stories. You have to actively look to find stories like this: If you just look at the best-known authors of the past, you’ll miss these stories, because of the prejudices of the past and the present. I am now actively looking for the less well-known authors, but know that I’ll need to look harder. I think the reward will be worth the effort.

However, I also recognize that I tend to gravitate towards stories that give me windows into women’s lives in the past. It is most obvious in Hemmed In, but I think that inclination has shaped all of the Taster Flights, and I know it influences which stories I pick for Inbox Stories. The next edition of that newsletter comes out next Monday (January 21), and I have chosen an Anthony Trollope story that subtly challenged my expectations of Victorian women.

I’ll continue reading old short stories – I’m hooked now. If you’d like to try it out and see if you also enjoy the window into the past they provide, grab a copy of one of my Taster Flights, subscribe to Inbox Stories, or just start searching on your own. I think you’ll enjoy it!

(post by Melanie Nelson, owner of Annorlunda Books)

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