In Search of Short Stories: A Navigation Guide (sort of)

Finding books you like can take hard work, huge emphasis here on the you. Because chances are, what you like isn’t necessarily the same as what your mother likes or what your friend likes or what a New York Times critic likes or even what the judges of the Man Booker prize like. My point being, our tastes are all our own. The secret to enjoying reading is to know what you like – and then how to find it.

Thankfully, for books, there are some great tools out there to help us. There’s the popular Goodreads as well as the popular-among-librarian-types LibraryThing. Both websites have in their databases pretty much every in-print book out there (barring the very obscure and very old) along with a synopsis, user ratings, and user reviews. The sites will suggest similar titles to a book. They’re excellent resources. With a bit of work, you can more or less comb through the plethora of books out there, cherry-picking the ones that might appeal to you, based on real data.

safariIt is a different story unfortunately for shorter works – short stories and creative nonfiction articles specifically (hereon, for simplicity’s sake, both are referred to as ‘short stories’). I have yet to find a resource out there that makes it easy – or forget easy, possible, to comb through the content out there to find pieces that will speak to you.

In my mind, here is the current landscape: In order to obtain an overview of current short stories, one would have to manually check a multitude of websites, magazines, and lit journals. To catch even a sampling of what exists would mean regularly checking dozens of websites on a regular basis.

Like with books, there are various ‘gold standards’ one can refer to that do some of the curation work for you, that select from the sludge piles the ‘best of the best’ – lists of award winning short stories, anthologies of ‘the best’ short stories of 2017, noteworthy magazines, etc. But as with books, I buy very much into the theory that tastes differ and tastes matter. So – how then to find what we like?

The current landscape of the short story world to me is books pre-Goodreads, music pre-Spotify, and recipes pre-Pinterest. It is a cumbersome, manual business to sift through and find what one likes.

An ideal scenario would be the existence of some sort of platform that allowed users to rate and review short stories, tag them according to subject matter, mood, or other descriptive terms (ex: funny, historical, grief), keep track of what they’ve read and liked, and receive suggestions for new pieces they might like based on past activity. Sadly, I have yet to find such a tool.

So while I wait, I’m still finding short stories that speak to me and am still very grateful for the content and authors out there. I just have to work a little harder to find them. Here’s my current approach.


The Work I do to Find Short Stories

My Tool of Choice: Surprisingly, Twitter. Why Twitter? Most magazines, online literary journals, and authors themselves will promote new content on Twitter. By following these various accounts, you can quickly build up a constantly updated feed of new short work to consider – your pool. (Medium, WordPress, and others are also options – but I’ve found publications/authors are more likely to have Twitter accounts than accounts on other platforms.)

Cast a Wide Net: At time of writing, I currently follow 1,186 accounts. Is this too many? Quite possibly to almost definitely. However, whenever I come across a writer, magazine, or website that I think I *might* be interested in, I follow them. My theory is: cast a wide net and then from that, filter. I’d prefer to be able to consider and then rule out something rather than not consider it at all (and potentially miss something good).

Go Down Those Rabbit Holes: How do you find the right accounts/writers/magazines to follow? First, start with following a couple of accounts of names you know (look for a favorite magazine or author). From there you have a few options.
– Twitter is great at suggesting new and similar accounts to follow. Sometimes these suggestions are terrible, and sometimes they’re good.
– Look at the feed of an account you’re following. Who are they retweeting? Whose tweets are they liking? Which Twitter accounts do they follow? Could these be possible accounts you might be interested in? Has anyone added the account you’re following to a List of accounts? If so, could other accounts on this List also be interesting?
– Whenever you come across an author, magazine, or website whether on Twitter, elsewhere online, or offline, check to see if there are related Twitter accounts you can follow.

Sort and Categorize: Now that you have all these accounts that you follow, make it easier on yourself and categorize them into your own Lists on Twitter. Are there natural groupings that occur – possible distinctions could be by account type: ‘Writers’ versus ‘Lit Magazines/Sites’ or by work type, ‘Short Story’ versus ‘Creative Nonfiction.’ You may pull out a few you love especially and create a ‘Favorites’ List.

Read: Read through your feed and Lists. Look for tweets that are linking you to possible new material. Follow a link. Browse through the piece. If you enjoy it, ‘like’ the tweet. This will also bookmark it for you under your likes.

Weed Regularly: This is the part I could be better at. In addition to looking for accounts and pieces to love, be on the constant lookout for accounts that just aren’t working for you. After a couple of irrelevant or disappointing tweets, consider unfollowing an account.

Repeat: Keep adding new accounts, keep updating your lists, keep finding new material you like, review your likes every now and again for clues as to which accounts you’re liking again and again (and which you can then bump up to a ‘favorites’ List), weed out/remove accounts that don’t match your tastes.

This process saves me the work of one-by-one checking a very long list of websites. Again, it’s definitely not perfect, not by a long shot. A few notable downsides: I’m only considering online free material, and material not backed somehow by an active twitter account is significantly handicapped. I also don’t use this method exclusively. In addition, I subscribe to the mailing lists and newsletters of sites that I know I love.

Still looking for a better way – so if someone has ideas – or wants to invent something (an app of Goodreads quality or higher?!), I’m all ears.

As a side note, here are a few great sites out there that I’ve stumbled across as well as a few pieces I really enjoyed in 2017.

Sites I frequent:
Hippocampus Magazine – “an exclusively online publication set out to entertain, educate and engage writers and readers of creative nonfiction. Each issue features memoir excerpts, personal essays, reviews, interviews and craft articles”
Catapult – “produces an award-winning daily online magazine of narrative nonfiction and fiction”
Guernica – “a magazine of global arts and politics”
Narrative Magazine – “A renowned modern library of fiction, poetry, essays, and visual art by celebrated and emerging artists, provided free to readers.”
The Rumpus – “features interviews, book reviews, essays, comics, and critiques of creative culture as well as original fiction and poetry”
Dear Damsels – Dear Damsels is an online platform championing young female voices – a place where women can come together online, to read and write about the things that matter to them

A few great pieces:
“Ice” – River Teeth Journal
“Woven” – Catapult
“Zhiyu/Jerry” – The Rumpus
“I Knew She Was Beautiful” – The New Yorker

What I’ve Discovered in 2017 (the bookish version)

I’m a list-maker. I love lists, and I make lots of them. As a kid, I think I once tried to inventory everything that was in my parents’ home (down to the number of pencils and spoons). This project, unsurprisingly, was never finished. And so here is a different list.

book-1957450_1920-e1513456116997.png

It is not a Best Books of 2017 list. I don’t read nearly enough newly published books to even attempt such a list. In fact, I have trouble making ‘best-of’ lists in general. Don’t they imply that you’ve somehow read/experienced/tasted/watched the gamut? I have not. And so this list is less ambitious. Out of all of the things I have come across and experienced this year, this list details what I have been most happy to discover.

EDIT: My initial list of things discovered was far too long. This is the abridged book/reading-related version.

What I’ve Discovered in 2017 (the bookish version)

1. You don’t have to finish the books you start

I used to have some pretty heavy guilt if there were books sitting on my shelves that I either hadn’t gotten to yet or hadn’t finished. This was most severe if the book was a classic, a recommendation from a friend, or ‘supposed to be really good’ by any other standard. But reading without enjoyment seems to me to defeat the entire purpose of reading (save of course what we have to trudge through during school and study). Reading without enjoyment also prevents you from getting to other books you’ll enjoy more. There are millions and millions of books out there – far more than you can ever hope to get to within your lifetime. Why waste your time on books that for whatever reason just aren’t interesting to you? Since embracing the idea that not finishing books is indeed okay, I have read far far more this year than I have in previous years – frankly because every (well, most) pages were enjoyable – and when they stopped being enjoyable, I just put the book down. See my previous post for more elaboration on the reasons why it doesn’t always make sense to finish the books that we start.

This habit of starting and stopping and abandoning books also works best when the books are free – as in, borrowed from a library, which brings me to my next point.


2. I love libraries

It’s not that I didn’t like libraries before – I just don’t think I’d ever been exposed to them in the right way and/or given them a true chance. I have fond (as well as tormented) memories of studying in the library while in university and I loved the Black Diamond Royal Library while I was living in Copenhagen. But I loved those libraries in the same way I like a nice bookstore or a cozy coffeeshop – as a space to sit.

This year though, thoughtlessly, I fell into libraries. It started with wanting a place to sit and read and work that was quieter than the coffeeshop I’d been frequenting – and where I didn’t feel guilty about staying past finishing my latte. And then I found so much more than a nice place to sit, namely:

A Few Reasons Why I Love Libraries

ONE: The obvious (but perhaps overlooked, at least by me) fact that you have access to basically any book you could want, for free. I’m lucky to live in a city with a well-funded and large library system. We can get from within our library system (or request via Interlibrary Loan) more or less any book title. For free. In my particular library system, this means I can check out 100 books at a time, with 3 week loan periods and the possibility to renew up to 6 months (provided nobody else is waiting on my copy). Sometimes, I just don’t understand why libraries aren’t a bigger threat to booksellers. That said, before 2017, I hardly went to the library. The biggest difference though is that before, I read much much less. I also ‘tried out’ books less. Today, I usually check out 6-7 books a week. I will browse through all of these, decide not to read 4-5 of them, actually read 2 from front to cover, – and then check out 6 more books the next week. If we assume that each book costs a (conservatively low) $15, that equates to a whopping $4,680 yearly book habit had I been buying instead of borrowing books.

TWO: Libraries are the last (truly) public indoor spaces. In many communities, libraries are the only indoor public spaces where you can spend as much time as you want and where there isn’t an expectation for you to purchase anything or spend any money. Coffee shops, bars, and shopping malls are all great places to meet up with friends, socialize, or just sit – but there is always the expectation of the purchase. And there is always the sense of outstaying one’s welcome should no purchase be made. In this sense, libraries are glaringly unique.

THREE: Libraries are putting on amazing events and programs. I was surprised by how many events my local library holds. From story time for kids to free yoga to knitting clubs to homework help sessions to family craft nights to writing workshops and local history lectures, they host such an impressive slew of free events on a daily basis. In this way, they’re becoming places not only to read but also to learn, to interact with others, to create and to make.

FOUR: They have the potential to be even more. Libraries in general are moving away from their traditional function – of being a building that houses books – and towards being a collaborative community space that facilitates learning. And learning can take place in many shapes and forms – from the reading of books to the usage of databases to the participation in classes to the joining of groups to meeting others with like-minded interests. The Aspen Institute’s 2014 Report, Rising to the Challenge: Re-Envisioning Public Libraries states it beautifully. On page 5, I found this quick and perfect summary that captures the role public libraries can play in today’s changing world and economy:

What People and Communities Need to Flourish in the Knowledge Economy

 

LIFELONG ACCESS to an ever-increasing and ever-changing body of knowledge and tools to ensure that their skills remain relevant to the current economy as it continues to evolve

THE CAPACITY AND DISPOSITION TO LEARN IN SMALL, QUICK DOSES rather than wade through
mounds of links and piles of data that provide too much information and too little knowledge

THE ABILITY TO USE, UNDERSTAND AND PROCESS INFORMATION IN MANY DIFFERENT FORMS including text, data, audio and video and to evaluate the quality of information from different sources and understand its relevance.

PLACES TO GATHER, collaborate and contribute to knowledge development

ACCESS TO CONVERSATIONS AMONG CREATIVE PEOPLE in their areas of interest so that they
can innovate and develop or maintain a competitive advantage in the knowledge economy

People and communities need PUBLIC LIBRARIES.


3. I can store, organize, search, and remember – what I’ve read

For the full, lengthy original post, click here. This year, Zotero has been my godsend. In short, it’s a research tool traditionally primarily used by students and researchers to keep track of journal articles and other documents read as part of academic research. I use it as a tool to keep track of what I read. When I come across things I read that I want to remember, I categorize, tag, and store these quotations and snippets of text within Zotero. I add notes and there’s a logical structure within which my excerpts are sorted so that I can find them later. Now, a year into using Zotero, I have thousands of quotations and excerpts all catalogued and searchable of all the things that I’ve read, loved, and wanted to remember. I can search – say using the tag – ‘creativity’ and find 20 different excerpts I’ve come across in the past year. I absolutely love this system.


4. Text Mining of literature is a very cool thing

My two favorite things are probably books and data. So, needless to say, it was a very good day when I learned about text mining and its application in analyzing literature, done through institutions such as the Stanford Literary Lab. The general idea behind text mining is that there are so many books that have been published and that are still being published that it’s impossible to expect to be able to read them all. How then can anyone expect to gain a comprehensive overview of ‘literature’ considering that a single person can only hope to read a slim portion of ‘literature’? Further, today through various efforts including Project Gutenberg, much of the literary classics (that are no longer covered by copyright) are digitized and freely available. This presents a new opportunity to analyze these texts using traditional data methods. The text can be ‘tokenized’ into measurable units, either words or short word-pairings so that they are then readable as data and able to be studied through programs like R & Python.

Examples of possible analyses include looking at word frequencies or lengths of sentences within a novel. Or to ask, are there more words with positive connotations during certain portions of a novel? Or, do male and female characters use different types of words? The Stanford Literary Lab has done some fascinating work. One of its pamphlets looked at the ‘Emotions of London‘ as expressed in literature. Place names were identified throughout a broad corpus (data set) of novels and the adjectives used to describe those place names were coded as positive or negative in emotion. The result of the project was a fascinating map of London color coded to display the breadth of emotion associated with each area as expressed in literature.

The possibilities for analysis, I think, are endless. Novels to some degree are a record of the feelings and thoughts of the time in which they were written. You could search within thousands of novels for the changing depiction of marriage, fidelity, and infidelity. You could analyze changing thoughts about death and the afterlife. You could look at conversations between servant and master, mother and child. Basically any analysis that has been done through close examination and careful scrutiny of a few texts can now be attempted through digital analysis of a large swath of texts. In a very nerdy sort of way, I find that all really exciting.

Three Things : City Design for Humans, Book Fights, & Oh So Many Questions – November 6th

From reimagining urban planning to book fights to a book that only gives questions and no answers, here are three things keeping me interested:3

  • Book Fight!: A funny and witty podcast filled with book talk, author talk, and lots of good banter
  • Jan Gehl & The Human Scale: A documentary & TED Talk that challenge us to consider how our cities can better cater to the human scale
  • Gold Fools by Gilbert Sorrentino: Is this really a book written in nothing but questions?

1) Book Fight! Podcast

This podcast is actually one of the regular highlights of my week. Mike Ingram and Tom McAllister are smart, not always so tasteful, but always very funny.

There’s an iTunes review that says “Listening to Tom and Mike feels like eavesdropping on the most interesting conversation at a party,” and it’s certainly true. They cover the gamut, from highbrow classics to popular, trending literature to the obscure and weird. They’re self-deprecating, witty, and there’s such a great rapport between them that it’s hard to stop listening.

Recent podcasts cover Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, Patrician Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, and (among the more obscure of the bunch) “Uggs for Gaza” by Gordon Haber. Along with the book talk, other literary or not so literary themes discussed (that change with the season) include millennials and how they’re portrayed by the media and the affairs and romances of authors.

And as well as being entertaining, it is important to also point out that the conversations are thought-provoking, deep, and ask and attempt to answer interesting and challenging questions. Highly recommended for lovers of reading, writing, or books that are looking for something both intellectually stimulating but also light-hearted and entertaining.

bookfight


2. Jan Gehl & The Human Scale

There’s both a TED Talk and a documentary linked to here which explore Danish architect Jan Gehl’s ideas on urban planning, most specifically the human scale. According to Gehl, older cities (those which were built largely before the 1960s) were composed of two elements: the street (built back then primarily for walking) and the square (built as an area of public space and for the human eye). These older cities were built with the needs of the human body in mind: the speed at which a person would walk, the distances that would need to be covered on foot, what they would smell and hear and see.

Human ScaleWith the 1960s came intense population growth from agrarian communities into the cities as well as the rise of the automobile. These two factors together contributed towards rapid city construction that was heavily catered towards the needs of the automobile. Newer cities were designed to be navigated within at vehicle speeds of 60km/hr, rather than pedestrian speeds of 5km/hr. Distances between home and work and shopping became greater. In addition to the distances alone becoming prohibitive to walking, the stretches between destinations became barren of activity and life. In stark contrast to the vibrant squares, plazas, and public spaces of older European cities were born the empty in-between spaces of suburban America.

The impact of this shift in the design of cities has been enormous. Gehl mentions that the three main factors essential towards good human health are: Fresh Air, Exercise, and Meeting other people.

Newer cities make it much more challenging for people to achieve these three factors. Gehl’s research has shown that the way public spaces are designed significantly impact public behavior. What happens when a neighborhood meeting corner or public space disappears? People meet less. And what happens when streets are pedestrianized and more public spaces are created? People fill those spaces.

When cities are out of touch with the human-scale, they are not serving the needs of its people. People are less able to fully interact with the city. Cars and traffic can stifle or suffocate a city. People aren’t able to walk, to discover. With less walking and public areas come less spontaneous human interaction. People are more isolated and alone and are meeting others less often.

Gehl asks, how is it that despite the fact that humans have maintained the same size, proportions, and basic needs over the past hundreds of years –  in the past fifty, our cities have ballooned to seemingly meet creatures the size of – dinosaurs? Fascinating food for thought.


3. Gold Fools by Gilbert Sorrentino

gold fools

How is it possible than an entire book is composed of nothing but interrogative sentences? Would it even have a plot? Would it make sense? Might it, maybe, even be captivating? Might somehow the questions invite you to participate with the book and the reading experience in a way is entirely new and novel?

Yes, this is a book that is written entirely in questions. It’s a Western adventure novel and it somehow manages to get away without a single declarative sentence. I am a sucker for books that challenge conventions. And I am just so pleased that something like this exists, and I revel in the fact that it is actually, a very readable and enjoyable book. It has a plot and character development and all the familiar trappings, but somehow Sorrentino was genius enough to first dream up the idea of a book of nothing but questions – and then execute it. And it’s pretty good.

Link to Gold Fools goodreads page.