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What I Learned from Reading Old Short Stories

Not so long ago, I decide to take the "taster flight" concept that I use in some posts here a step further, and started publishing taster flights in book form. Since I'm just starting out as a publisher, I don't have a large back catalogue from which I could pick stories, so I turned to public domain stories, namely stories that were published long enough ago to no longer be covered by copyright.

To assemble my two taster flight collections, Missed Chances and Love and Other Happy Endings, I had to read a lot of old stories. I read at least five stories for each one that appears in a collection. That estimate is probably on the low end, and doesn't include the large number of stories I started and abandoned as unsuitable without finishing.

I have really enjoyed the experience, and will almost certainly continue to read old stories and assemble them into taster flight collections. Some of the stories I try are not very good and some are outright horrible, but frankly, that is also true of the modern stories I try as I read to find short ebooks to recommend here. I've also found some real gems that I would never have found without this project. Constance Fenimore Woolson's A Florentine Experiment (in Missed Chances) and F. Scott Fitzgerald's Head and Shoulders (in Love and Other Happy Endings) are two that come to mind.

I have also learned some things:

1. Stories used to be told at a much more leisurely pace

Maybe this is an artifact of the types of books I read now, but I try to read fairly broadly, so I am inclined to think there has been a real shift in storytelling. The older stories generally spend more time on character development and on description of the scene and the characters. The plots, while interesting and engaging, often move and a slower speed.

I've come to really enjoy this aspect of reading old stories. I can settle in and take a break from the fast pace of the rest of my life!

2. Times have changed, and some stories survive that better than others

I read one story about a woman, her husband, and her in-laws that I was enjoying... until the end, when I got very, very confused. I had to reread the ending a few times before I realized what the ending actually was: the woman got pregnant and had a baby. None of this was stated directly, though. It was just hinted at, even though it was the resolution of the plot. I suspect that the mores of the day did not allow a more direct statement of this outcome, and that the oblique references would have been enough to make the events obvious to a reader at the time the story was published, but they left this modern reader lost. Needless to say, I did not choose to use this story.

I also come across a lot of racism in old stories. As soon as I encounter it, I stop reading that story. I will never include such a story in one of my collections, and I'm not doing an academic study or survey of literature of some time period, so why pollute my brain with that? It is, however, a reminder that even great authors are products of their time, and most are trapped in the mindset of their times. The same is true of all of us, and future generations will no doubt find they have to put down some stories from our favorite authors for similar reasons. Whenever I run across racism in an old story, I can't help but wonder what currently common views will be repugnant to my great-grandchildren.

3. Some things really are universal

An author with a keen eye for character produces stories that speak across the ages. One of my favorite discoveries from this project has been L.M. Montgomery's short stories. Sadly, some fall victim to point #2, and some are saccharine fluff. But some are excellent, and those are generally excellent due to the way Montgomery captures some essential about human nature in some of her characters.

Points 1 and 3 keep me reading old stories, even as point 2 leads me to abandon some I start... so expect more taster flight books in the future!

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In other news, I have a guest post up at the Reading Life blog, talking about why I love short ebooks, and what led me to them in the first place.

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Comments

I love this idea of a taster flight (love the name, too). I definitely notice that not all short stories age well. However, one of my favorite old short stories, Roman Fever, is as provocative today as it was in its time. Have you read that one?
@deb_atwood from
Pen In Her Hand

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