My high school in the early 1960s, (Poly, Baltimore Polytechnic Institute) was trapped in love with Old English novels – Ivanhoe, Return of the Native, Silas Marner, Tale of Two Cities, and The Citadel. Outside of school, it was Perry Mason novels and science fiction for me.
In science fiction, I hadn’t been reading short stories, despite my friend Wayne’s recommendation to do so. I reflexively, logically refuted him by declaring that short stories didn’t develop situations as deeply as I liked. I declared short stories ended before my interest was satisfied, so I wasn’t going to waste time on them.
Then in the 11th or 12th grade my English teacher assigned a collection of short stories. I had to read them. I don’t remember many details, but the excitement of quick situation, fierce action, and rapid wrap-up never left me.
For instance, trapped on a small ship in a maelstrom short story by Poe, followed by a story of army ants marching across my body, I mean the protagonist’s body. Such a tremendous change from the slow, lugubrious pace of those damn English masters.
That was my first taste of the quick excitement that short stories provided.
Until then, I read for escapism, driven more by the fictional world and the plot rather than for character. In fact, character, to the limited extent I thought about it, remained merely a function of what the plot needed, not an interest in and of itself.
Yet by the end of the short story unit, I saw that with their quickness and sharp focus, some short stories can illuminate psychological truths without the effort to the writer or the reader of a full-length novel.
Illustration by Harry Clarke (1919) in Wikicommons and public domain.