Who Says Size Matters?: Short Story Collections That Belong on Every Novel-Reader’s Shelf

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On the difference between short stories and novels, Stephen King described the former as “a kiss in the dark from a stranger.” His meaning? While they may lack the length of traditional novels, short stories certainly aren’t lacking in depth—just as a kiss carries its own special magic, without the commitment of a serious relationship.

The collections below are testaments to the unique power of the short story. Individual snapshots of husbands and wives, sons and daughters, are connected by central themes—whether those be love, grief, hope, or loneliness. Together, they form a cohesive whole that portrays the ups and downs of the human experience, while packing the emotional punches you’d find in the best novels.

A Model World, Michael Chabon

Similar to Chabon’s acclaimed debut, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, much of A Model World is dedicated to a young man’s coming-of-age. In this case, it’s centered on Nathan Shapiro, whose life is upended by the announcement of his parents’ divorce. Six other tales round out the collection, and as Chabon describes the reunion of ex-lovers or the pains of dashed dreams, he uses the stylistic flair that makes him one of literature’s most distinctive contemporary voices.

Short Stories, Irwin Shaw

After publishing his breakout novel, The Young Lions, Irwin Shaw became the voice of post-war America. Packed with Shaw’s signature wit and insight, this collection features 63 of the author’s short stories—including the iconic “The Eighty-Year Run” and “Main Currents in American Thought.” The result is a rich portrait of American life that spans from Prohibition in the 1930s to the political unrest of the Vietnam War era.

The Golden Apples, Eudora Welty

 

Few authors have captured the nuances of the South better than Pulitzer Prize winner Eudora Welty. Hailed as “a work of art” by the New York Times, The Golden Apples takes readers to a Mississippi town whose past reverberates throughout the present. In one story, a love-starved piano teacher turns to arson, while her beloved student comes-of-age in another. An absent father rejects his family in the first half of the collection, before his son finds an unlikely lover in the second. These interconnected tales create a tapestry of Southern life that reads more like a novel than separate stories.

The Stories of Erskine Caldwell, Erskine Caldwell

 

If anyone could strike a nerve, it was Erskine Caldwell—who penned some of the most censored works of the 20th century. He’s up to his usual tricks in this collection of short stories, using satirical humor to address controversial subjects like the racial and social injustices of the South.

Marcovaldo, Italo Calvino

 

The twenty stories of Italo Calvino’s beloved collection unfold with the changing seasons. At the center of each is the titular Marcovaldo, whose wild imagination, love of nature, and good intentions clash with his cosmopolitan lifestyle. Whether he’s trying to domesticate a wild rabbit or wanting to cure arthritis with wasp stings, his schemes take disastrous but hilarious turns. These recurring failures and this relentless search for happiness have endeared readers to Calvino’s collection for over 50 years. After all, hasn’t everyone been Marcovaldo at some point in their lives?

One Way or Another, Peter Cameron

 

A teenager experiences unrequited love for the first time. A daughter lies for the sake of her dying mother. Two boys yearn to come out as lovers. These separate threads—and eleven others—come together to form an award-winning volume that has echoes of J.D. Salinger and Melissa Banks’ Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing.

You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down, Alice Walker

 

You Can’t Keep A Good Woman Down contains exactly what its title suggests: inspiring stories about women who, despite reaching their lowest lows, manage to rise again. As in her most famous novel, The Color Purple, Walker never balks at taboo subjects like sexual assault or racial relations, but deftly weaves them into the narratives to create a stunning work of female empowerment.

The Toughest Indian in the World, Sherman Alexie

 

Given the ongoing tug-of-war over the Dakota Pipeline, perhaps The Toughest Indian in the World is needed more than ever. Here, the National Book Award-winning author introduces readers to a cast of Native Americans, all of whom search for meaning within their strained marriages, parent-child relationships, confusing romances, and more. Only the author behind The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven can both uplift and disturb over the course of just 253 pages—but that ability is on full display in this bestselling collection.

Selected Stories, Andre Dubus

 

Following a series of tragedies in his own life, Andre Dubus began channeling his personal strife into his fiction. His characters are flawed but made more vivid by their imperfections: a housewife recalls the days of her failing marriage; an obese woman justifies her binge-eating disorder; a young man reconciles his sexuality with his faith. But even within these tales of struggle, Dubus offers moments of levity—a combination that captures humanity in all its ugliness and beauty.

Another Marvelous Thing, Laurie Colwin

 

Billy and Francis’ affair has been doomed from the start. Not only are they both happily married, but they’re also entirely incompatible. Where Billy is a young and messy introvert, Francis is an older and neat sophisticate. Laurie Colwin’s charming stories chart their relationship from start to finish, alternating perspectives to better demonstrate just how unpredictable love—and our lovers—can be.

The Art of Living, Jon Gardner

 

Conductors, painters, musicians, and singers populate the pages of John Gardner’s collection. Through each character’s separate journeys—a young boy who finds solace in classical music; a chef who mourns his son’s death—Gardner explores the human experience through the appreciation of art, and how art itself can enrich our lives and heal our souls.

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