For well over a year people have been trying to make me read A Little Life. I will not. I believe them when they say that it’s good, and that they loved it, and what an epically harrowing experience the whole thing is. Still. Can’t do it. Don’t want to. Don’t even know why I don’t want to. Just don’t. This would not be any kind of an issue, were it not for the fact that people keep trying to set me up with it. They want me to read it so badly! They are adamant in their belief that it is the book for me. My resolve is only hardening. I have about me the look of a person who will never read A Little Life. The look of a person at peace with herself.
I know what will happen though. At some unspecified point in the future, I will walk past A Little Life on my bookshelf and I will stop, because it will suddenly be the right time. I have come to recognize the feeling. It will be a terrible and perfect marriage of my weird mood and this undoubtedly weird book. I’ll start to read and I will be immediately gripped, instantly crazy about it. I will try force people to read it and when they say they don’t want to, I will say that they are wrong. It always happens like this, with the right book at the right time.
The only thing I can compare it to is falling abruptly in love with someone you have been distantly aware of for years. You have seen the point of them in general, but nothing more. They were just there, going about their lives, greeting you politely at parties. They seemed nice, in a remote sort of way. Then something happens, there is an audible click, and there they suddenly are, in front of you, ready to be adored in all their weirdness. Their personality seems to have been engineered in a lab to please you. It’s awful, because you think at once about what a close thing it was, and how hideously perilous love is in general. They had been under your nose this whole while. What if you had missed them? What were you thinking, overlooking them? It’s no good berating yourself about time wasted, though. It’s not that you had overlooked this person, it’s that you weren’t ready for them. You needed a few bitter experiences under your belt first — one or two awful break-ups, a few incidents where you see your own flaws with searing clarity, some moments of pure, high boredom. It’s only now that you are prepared, that you can see them properly.
It happened to me first like this with Middlemarch. If you spend any length of time in an English department, you will be obliged to have an opinion on Middlemarch, whether or not you have read it. My opinion, for many years, was that I hated the very idea of it. Everything I read about it got right on my nerves, beginning with Dorothea. I couldn’t understand why people seemed to love her so much, so Spartan and always reading a boring book. I took her very personally. Why always Dorothea? I did not like the sound of Lydgate either, or think that I could mind very much about a vaguely thwarted country doctor. The historical backdrop did not strike me as very interesting (I still don’t really know or care what a rotten borough is), and it didn’t have any good wars. It also seemed too long, and by all accounts there weren’t a lot of parties. My whole soul shied away. People kept telling me to read it. My mother, especially, who knows me better than anyone. Read it, she kept saying, and you’ll understand.
I couldn’t and I couldn’t, for about six years, and then one day I could. Some things had happened. I had broken some people’s hearts, and I had had mine broken in return. I had gone through a period of severe underemployment, related directly to my inability to pull myself together. I had realized that existing in the world with other people meant understanding that we were not the same as each other, and that we were all just trying our deeply inadequate best. I had realized, further, that knowing this is not the same thing as being able to do anything about it. What I am saying is that I was finally ready to listen to what Middlemarch had to tell me. I just picked it up, like it was no big deal, like I hadn’t spent years and years resisting it, and I was done for. That first time reading it, I kept looking around like Jesus, will you please get a load of this? Does everyone know that Middlemarch exists and that you can go ahead and read it just whenever you please? I couldn’t believe how good it was, how much I felt that it was speaking directly to me.
This is of course a definitive feature of the novel — the narrator’s inclusive, confiding address to the reader. I felt that it had been written for me, that it was mine. Again, this is the same thing as falling in love very hard, with all the egotism behind the outlandish notion that a) the person was put on this earth for you, and b) they are objectively the best person to ever exist in the sorry history of the human race. Love! What would we do without it? I couldn’t talk about anything else for weeks. I found a way to bring it up in all kinds of situations, to tilt the angle of my conversation so that it flowed straight back to Middlemarch. It is amazing how many reasons one can find to bring up the pier glass bit, for instance, or to talk about what a nice man Caleb Garth is. He really is very nice, and we should all strive to be more like him. I developed my own understanding of the novel’s co-ordinates, my own greatest hits collection. I still, for example, don’t really care about Dorothea. She is not my scene, in the same way that Jane Eyre is not my scene. Too severe. I still also don’t care about Lydgate, although I can feel that changing. Better to say that I don’t care about Lydgate yet. Fred Vincy, though, my God. I cared about him a lot from day one. It is not an exaggeration to say that Fred Vincy changed my life.
Middlemarch’s narrator has been accused of being overly partial to Fred, the implication being that he is not all that wonderful or deserving of the narrator’s time and attention. This accusation is false and I resent it. He is selfish and frivolous, yes, and almost unmatchedly entitled, but he is also a person capable of being redeemed by love. He is good not because of anything intrinsically fine in his character, but because of who he chooses to care about most. I mean, he is okay, but the reason he is good is because he wants to be good enough for Mary Garth. We do not speak of him enough. Fred Vincy: good humoured, a tiny bit silly, a tiny bit too interested in fun. Fred Vincy: the man responsible for me finally getting a grip.
I was enduring, as I said, a period of underemployment that was only and entirely my fault. I was trying to be good but I just couldn’t. Is it enough to say that I was 25? Everyone around me was working, and getting on with things, taking their lunch breaks and being responsible for their little sisters, and I was just…not. Fred Vincy and I, messing everything up, with our self-absorption and our quiet belief that other people would sort things out for us. It was at about age 25 that I realized, to my horror and distress, that no one was going to come riding in and fix my life for me. The injustice of this only enervated me further. It was bad, and then I read Middlemarch.
Chapter 25, and the bit where Fred comes over to tell Mary Garth that he has landed her father in debt, a debt which he knows Caleb Garth will find nearly impossible to pay. Mary looks at him with first alarm, and then, worse, dismissal. He asks him to forgive her and she asks him what difference her forgiveness would make, given that it would not alleviate a single one of his fuck-ups. He says, infuriatingly, that he is “so miserable, Mary — if you knew how miserable I am, you would be sorry for me.” A great man for missing the point. He says, panicked, that he is “going now”, and that “I shall never speak to you about anything again.” I read all this with the particular kind of mounting alarm that comes with being recognized. Not even recognized: accused. I knew this particular movie so well, and had starred in it too many times.
And then, Mary says, “How can you bear to be so contemptible, when others are working and striving, and there are so many things to be done — how can you bear to be fit for nothing in the world that is useful?” That’s all she says, and that’s all it took. It was as if George Eliot had reached into my brain and jiggled it around a bit. It seems like a small thing, but it really wasn’t, because how could we bear it? We were better than that, surely? It was the thing I was finally ready to hear, after years of Vincy-ing around.
The change did not come overnight, not for Fred Vincy or for me. He goes away from that meeting with Mary still needing to spend many pages getting over himself. I needed a few more months before I was ready, too. But I swear to God it was the seed for us both. Fred Vincy was made better by Mary Garth; I was made better by Middlemarch. He spends most of the novel getting to a point where he is good enough for her, and good enough even to love her properly. I spent half my twenties getting to the point where I was grown up enough to receive the medicine Middlemarch was determined to administer.
I’ve had this with other books since. Blood Meridian was a good one. It sat on my shelf for years, giving me no good reason to read it. Friends had loved it, but it sounded ridiculous, mostly, and over the top, all that stuff about “he went forth stained and stinking like some reeking issue of the incarnate dam of war herself.” Come on. It seemed rude, also, to entirely disregard humor as a mechanism. And then, I went through a period where I don’t remember smiling for about two months. Some bad stuff happened, some massively over-the-top stuff, and the funny or ironic side of things remained obscured. I felt extremely dramatic, as ancient as the hills, and do you know what is a good book for a mood like that? Why, Blood Meridian. I devoured it, reading long sections about scalping out loud. I have the last lines of the novel pinned above my desk, now, the bit about the judge dancing and saying that he will never die, and I look at them every day. He is a great favorite, the judge. That ending: so scary, so serious and devoid of irony, and so fine with that approach. It knocked me out then, and it knocks me out today. I needed a book that confirmed my sense that things were bad, and getting worse, and while this may sound counter-intuitive, it did make me feel better. I wish I was reading it right now. I think about Toadvine’s ear necklace all the time.
Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters got me for the opposite reasons. It is often dismissed as quaint, and it is, a bit. It is small, and focused on small things. Not grand in any sense except that it is in love with the world. I had read it once before, and liked it fine, and then I fell in love in that way which does not confine itself to the person but spills out onto everything and everyone. I chose a strange moment to feel this way, because the world at that time was presenting itself as an objectively unlovable place. Almost everyone I knew was focusing on the bigger picture, and was being made desperately unhappy by this. I was happy, though, because I was in love, and I badly needed a book which would tell me that it was fine to focus on small things, to see the whole universe in one car journey, one disastrous wedding, one drink. The world can only be kept at bay for so long, but inside the car, with Buddy Glass narrating, it felt briefly okay.
Some books you know you will love straight away, and other books you need to sit on for a while. You need to coexist with the book for some time, resenting it, maybe, assuring yourself that it is not for you. Rolling your eyes when it comes up in conversation etc. Saying oh PLEASE when it’s mentioned. Talking about it at dinner parties in a way that is actually a bit strange. Are you sure you’re not in love with the book? You are certainly talking about it a lot, for someone who says that they hate it and they wished no one had ever read it. Are you sure you don’t, at least, have a bit of a crush on the book? Hmm? You and the book, sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G. Admit it. You secretly love the book and you know it.
Image credit: Pexels/Pixabay.
Literature fans have doubtless heard about the three unpublished J.D. Salinger stories leaked online last month. A scanned manuscript entitled Three Stories in a style reminiscent of the Bantam Salinger editions surfaced on a torrent site in November, and the stories, “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls,” “Paula,” and “Birthday Boy,” were previously kept under wraps in the research sections of the Princeton and University of Texas libraries. The most viable theories say that the manuscript was photocopied in the years before the libraries cracked down on security, or that someone surreptitiously copied it in longhand when no one was looking.
Though “Birthday Boy” and “Paula” are rougher, less succinct drafts with typos and cross-outs, “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls” will hold the most interest for readers, as it contains a young Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye and shows the death of Holden’s younger brother, an incident only alluded to in the novel. The story is memorable, insightful, and funny, and easily ranks among Salinger’s best. So why did he insist it not be published until 50 years after his death?
When Salinger was writing Catcher, he was also writing short stories about Holden Caulfield and his family. Some got published, and some didn’t. Like “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls,” some of them are narrated by Holden’s older brother Vincent, an aspiring writer renamed D.B. in Catcher, where he’s off “being a prostitute” of a screenwriter.
Vincent Caulfield’s status as narrator evokes Buddy Glass from Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour — An Introduction, two of Salinger’s interconnected stories about the Glass family of child geniuses now grown up. With Vincent, we can imagine Salinger as a young writer playing with themes and relationships he would develop more fully later on. Salinger also does this with two early stories narrated by Holden Caulfield himself, “I’m Crazy” and “Slight Rebellion Off Madison,” in which readers will recognize events from Catcher. Check your copy of the novel: the title page says that incidents from the story previously appeared in Collier’s and The New Yorker, and these are the two they’re talking about.
So where does the hidden story “Bowling Balls” fit in? In Catcher, Holden talks about his younger brother Allie, who wrote poems all over his baseball glove and died of leukemia in Maine when Holden was younger. We don’t hear much about Allie, except that he “was about fifty times as intelligent” as Holden, and after he died Holden was so upset that he slept on the garage floor and smashed all the windows with his fist. The scene comes early in the novel and shows a lot about Holden through his childhood trauma.
In “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls,” we see the day Allie died — except here, his name is Kenneth; the family’s in Cape Cod, not Maine; and Allie dies of a heart condition, not leukemia. Vincent Caulfield narrates Kenneth’s last day, and we hear the precocious Kenneth chastise Vincent about a clichéd story he’s written and share a cynical letter from a young Holden that shows Salinger’s ability to capture childhood grammar and misspellings. Salinger fans will also recognize a girlfriend of Vincent’s who keeps her kings in the back row when they play checkers — a bad sign for their sex life, but a charmingly naïve observation coming from Kenneth. The climax comes when Kenneth suffers heart failure during the stress of an ocean swim, and Holden pauses in his nose-picking to scream when he sees his brother passed out.
“Bowling Balls” is certainly as good as any of Salinger’s Nine Stories, but aside from its continuity issues, it shows a version of Holden Caulfield far tamer than the one in Catcher, weakening the character mythos the novel creates. Holden’s letter home — albeit clever and funny — shows signs of, but doesn’t quite match the voice that gives Catcher its distinction. One can forgive this difference by arguing that Holden is younger and less misanthropic than in Catcher, though there’s no disputing that the story’s end does little to show how Kenneth’s death has affected him. Aside from the aforementioned scream, Holden’s reaction to the death fails to match Catcher’s angst, and the story’s final, mournful reflection belongs only to Vincent. Compare this with Holden’s version of the incident in Catcher:
I was only thirteen [when he died], and they were going to have me psychoanalyzed and all, because I broke all the windows in the garage. I don’t blame them. I really don’t. I slept in the garage the night he died, and I broke all the goddam windows with my fist, just for the hell of it. I even tried to break all the windows on the station wagon we had that summer, but my hand was already broken and everything by that time, and I couldn’t do it.
What readers can infer as a violent, emotional scene reads as more subdued through Holden’s distance from the event, but its severity remains vivid. Holden tells us everything we need to know before filing the incident beside his reflections on Stradlater’s razor and Jane Gallagher’s checker-playing habits, though generations of readers have used it in their own attempts to psychoanalyze Holden.
Do we really need Allie’s death played out in a separate story, to know any more about it than what Holden tells us in Catcher’s one and a half pages? Do we really need the scene filtered through a narrator we don’t know very well or have as much invested in? The answer to both is a resounding no. To see Allie’s death as it happens removes the mystery that Catcher lends it, and detracts from the raw power of Holden’s window-breaking.
Writers experiment with ideas when they’re writing novels. When these ideas don’t work, the writer throws them away. When they kind of work, the writer reshapes them into something that does. Vincent Caulfield is a likeable, well-developed character, but he doesn’t narrate nearly as well as D.B. Caulfield listens in Catcher. “Bowling Balls” would work well as a stand-alone story with different characters, but the story as is has no place in an official Salinger canon. Readers should approach it not as a prequel, but an instance of a young writer figuring out how one character’s death fits into a larger story, a curiosity for those interested in how Catcher came to be.
Maybe Salinger kept “Bowling Balls” hidden because he knew readers would try to fit it into a Caulfield saga, and would inevitably emerge from this quest confused and frustrated by their attempts to reconcile its differences from the novel. If that’s the case, he was right to preserve the integrity of his canon so the Caulfield family in Catcher would feel as consistent as the Glass family does in his novellas. How would we view A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man if one of Joyce’s early stories showed Stephen Dedalus as a contented extrovert?
However, those interested in Salinger’s early work and the development of his characters can still seek out his other published stories about the Caulfield family: “Last Day of the Last Furlough,” “This Sandwich Has No Mayonnaise,” “The Stranger,” “I’m Crazy,” and “Slight Rebellion Off Madison.” All of them appeared in magazines in the 1940s, and all are available online. Though these Caulfield stories don’t fit into the family canon any better than “Bowling Balls,” they’re different in that they’d already been published before Catcher came out. Salinger couldn’t keep people from tracking them down in the library storage room, but he could stop them from mass market re-publication. With “Bowling Balls,” his task was much easier. Readers will no doubt gain enjoyment from reading the leaked Three Stories manuscript, but they would do well to partially respect the author’s wishes by viewing its stories as experiments from an earlier time.
This question was posted all over New York City — on subway platforms and the sides of buses, in bright caps-locked letters. It was advertising the new documentary by Shane Salerno and David Shields about the ever-elusive writer. It also worked to promote the companion oral biography by the same name, Salinger. By adding no byline or description, the title sounds authoritative and definitive, it promises new insights into the author’s life and never-before-seen accounts by friends, ex-lovers and contemporaries.
The book is written in a cut-and-paste format familiar to readers of Shields’s “manifesto” Reality Hunger, a jarring style for a biography. The book is made up of pieces from Shields and Salerno’s own research as well as interviews conducted by other people, and — dominant in the book — accounts taken from other publications — the memoirs, biographies and letters already printed about old J.D. The style creates a sort of Salinger-history montage. An In Case You Missed It! of Salinger studies in the past several decades.
Most of the so-called new revelations in Salinger are well known to dedicated fans of the writer. His experience in World War II was detailed extensively in Kenneth Slawenski’s 2011 biography and his questionable experiences with younger women have been told countless times, most notably in Joyce Maynard’s memoir At Home in the World. That Salinger was not the most dedicated father or husband is no mystery to anyone who’s even heard of his daughter Margaret Salinger’s account in her own memoir, Dream Catcher. Salinger’s earlier fiction and the content of his letters is available to anyone with transportation to Princeton’s Firestone Library in New Jersey. While certainly not known to the average reader, these sections of the biography are hardly new discoveries.
To Salinger’s credit it does manage, between the stitches of its frankenstein format, to show a different, and quite clear, picture of Salinger’s life. All together, the fragmented accounts work as snapshots that create vibrant scenes of the experiences around and with J.D. Salinger. We hear the chatter and smell the cigarette smoke in the Stork Club as cameras flash to capture a moment in the life of Oona O’Neill, the Debutante of 1942 and sometimes-date of Salinger. Later we find ourselves waist-deep in water storming Utah Beach, surrounded by shellfire and chaos. In one of the final scenes of the book we see two photographers for the New York Post blocking in Salinger’s car in a grocery store parking lot, snapping photos and yelling harassment at the 69-year-old author.
Yet in all of the scenes in Salinger, through all the vivid color and sound, we see only what is going on around Salinger. The man himself is left in the shadows, remaining just out-of-frame. There is no moment, excepting the few quotations from Salinger’s own work or letters, when he feels present at all. The biography manages to circle in the air around old J.D. without ever hitting center.
There are attempts to fill these holes and reassert Salinger in what should be a story about him, but these feel rushed and speculative. Interviewees, and even Shields at times, insert statements that begin with “Salinger probably thought” or “Salinger must have felt” — and these instances feel like neighborhood gossip, not the work of literary biography.
After finishing the book I found myself with the same question that I began it with: What happened to J.D. Salinger? He appears absent in his own biography — a ghost, as Shields calls him several times. But this is the same Salinger we’ve seen, or rather haven’t seen, since he moved himself up a mountain in New Hampshire in 1952. He maintains, after death, the same elusiveness regarding his motives, his intentions, and his feelings, as he did for the last half century of his life. We have, instead of answers, a list of possible culprits for Salinger’s reclusion: heartbreak over Oona O’Neil, post-traumatic stress disorder from the war, and dedication to a Vedantic way of life which, we’re told rather adamantly, “killed his art.” These postulations fall short and don’t satisfy Salinger readers any more than previous accounts of his life had done.
So if this new project, hyped as one of the great literary reveals of our time, cannot help us find Salinger, what can?
Most striking in Salinger is the repetition of Salinger-seekers who went on to write or be interviewed about meeting the author, who didn’t expect their personal stories to elicit the attention and publicity that they received. Whenever news of Salinger was revealed, throughout his lifetime and especially after he ceased to publish, it was met with a flurry of public interest. Salinger has managed to not only maintain a readership through new generations, but to instill the same kind of devotion and excitement that once had readers rushing to newsstands the morning of a new New Yorker story.
Scholars, critics, everyday readers — everyone wants answers about (and from) Salinger. Many of the accounts in Salinger are from fans who decided that they needed, were even entitled, to an audience with the recluse, and they showed up at his doorstep only to be disappointed.
Michael Clarkson, the subject of the book’s first “Conversation with Salinger” section, drove 450 miles to meet the man he instinctually, and without permission, called Jerry. “I wanted to ask him, ‘Where do I go from here? What’s the next step?’” Unsurprisingly, Salinger was exasperated at being sought out as a guru to a stranger, to countless strangers, who showed up in the town that was supposed to be his santuary. Clarkson claims that he felt a certain obligation to Salinger fans to tell his story, and could not fathom that Salinger did not feel such a loyalty himself.
There’s something about Salinger that touches readers unlike any other 20th-century writer — he actually made people believe, in all sincerity, that he understood them, and truly cared. “There are few writers in this century,” Adam Gopnik is quoted saying, “who find or forge the key that enables them to unlock the hearts of their readers and their fellow people. And Salinger did that.”
He created his own small living room universes, revolving around three families — the Caulfields, the Glasses, and the Gladwaters of his early war stories who are mysteriously absent in the Shields/Salerno project — who struggled, as all people do, to reconcile that the world is full of suffering and horror, but no less full of beauty and hope. I can’t help but wonder why, for the fans who banged down his door, the fiction Salinger already gave us wasn’t enough.
In the 1959 New Yorker novella, Seymour: An Introduction, Buddy Glass, speaking as character and creator, says “I must reveal that my reputedly heart-shaped prose has knighted me one of the best-loved sciolists in print since Ferris L. Monahan, and a good many English Department people already know where I live, hole up; I have their tire tracks in my rose beds to prove it.”
Salinger fans, it seems, are forever leaving those tire tracks, trying to peek through the window. Perhaps his prose invites it — after all Salinger wrote the sort of books that, when you’re all done reading them, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours. For a lot of readers this instilled an entitlement for answers from the man who had already given them so much in those four slim volumes.
This, in part, feels like the premise of Salinger — that this writer, who we once dearly loved, abandoned us, and we deserve answers. The book seeks to answer not what happened to J.D. Salinger, but what was J.D. Salinger’s problem, anyway? It seeks answers like a child seeking an absent father.
So where do we go from here? With all of the information compiled in these new projects, the what’s, where’s, and when’s of Salinger’s life — what is there left to find? The why’s and how’s interest us most of all.
I believe the only way to fill these blanks is by returning to the beginning. To re-read The Catcher in the Rye with PTSD in mind. By reading Franny and Zooey, knowing that “Franny” was written as a wedding present for Salinger’s second wife Claire — a marriage that faded away as the Glass family grew more and more defined. Return to “For Esmé”, knowing that all of its hope and fragile beauty were created by a man present in many of the bloodiest battles of World War II and witness to the atrocities of the Holocaust. He managed to not only convey the numbing desolation of shell-shock, but to put the pieces back together again.
It’s time to not only return to his books, but to go back even further to his early stories — of Vincent Caulfield (later D.B.) and his brother Holden, each of whom die in the war and are resurrected in Catcher. To discover the Gladwater family, friends of the Caulfields, whose siblings Babe and Mattie mirror the relationship we see developed more fully between Holden and Phoebe. For those too far away from Princeton’s Firestone Library, the library at the University of Texas in Austin, or the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England — many of Salinger’s old stories can be found in library archives or, less reputably, transcribed online.
To read Salinger with new awareness of his experiences, retaining the grains of salt which must be taken alongside the Shields/Salerno projects, a new Salinger just might emerge. Now is the perfect time to revisit Salinger’s work and breathe new life into a body of critical work that is lacking at best. The conversation about him is re-starting and the readers who have remained quiet, holding their collective breath, for new Salinger material, can come out of hiding.
Perhaps we’ll even be rewarded with something truly new. There is not, for anyone who has read his final interviews or, better yet, read his letters, any doubt that Salinger kept writing. Salinger wrote his old friend Donald Hartog in 1991 that he kept busy writing, “fiction, as always.” In 1997 he noted, with great relief, that the fire which scorched a good part of the house, including his study, had spared his writing. After, he invested in a fireproof safe to protect his writing from future disasters, showing that Salinger didn’t only write for himself, but he actually took pains to preserve his work. If this doesn’t indicate an intention to publish, Shields and Salerno have word from “two independent and separate sources” that there are five works approved for publication beginning in 2015.
What awaits Salinger readers in the vault? Maybe more of the ecstatic prose of Seymour: An Introduction, or spiritual healing of “Zooey”. Perhaps, even, he continued in the direction of “Hapworth,” which so bewildered his critics. We may only speculate until the works are actually released but, whatever the outcome, new Salinger writing would help fuel the of renewed interest in the writer’s work and perhaps even relieve some of the bitterness that marks the better part of the Shields/Salerno project and so many other seeker accounts besides.
Whether or not Shields’s sources have any validity will be seen in time. It’s telling that Colleen O’Neill and Matthew Salinger, the two executors of the writer’s estate, both refuse to make a statement one way or the other. It will be impossible to gauge what the result of new Salinger fiction could have on the way that we view his writing as well as how we come to judge his reclusive years.
The recent news, here in Canada, of our great lady of letters, Alice Munro, taking the Giller prize for Runaway (excerpt), her latest collection of short fiction, gives us a chance to praise that wonderful literary form – the short story – and the authors who have practiced it with precision, humanity, and wit.Collected volumes of short fiction often provided me with an easy approach to the many writers who would become my favourites. Tight, economical writing, a whole world painted with just a few deft strokes – and I was hooked.And so it was that Welcome to the Monkey House became the book of my formative college years. In short order, I would devour all of Kurt Vonnegut’s marvelous works, but I still hold dear this short story collection. Even now, years later, the thought of “Harrison Bergeron” makes me simultaneously laugh and shudder at the alternate universe he inhabits – a world in which all citizens are subjected to absurd physical and mental “handicapping,” a leveling-out process that results in a form of institutionalized mediocrity. Sameness.For Ernest Hemingway, clarity and precision were his stock in trade, and nowhere is this more resonant than in In Our Time, a collection of early shorts. Hemingway can present Nick Adams to us and reveal more of his world in 5 pages than many writers would dare to in 500. “The Battler” stands out – a tale of young Nick’s encounter with a disfigured and psychologically damaged prizefighter while riding the rails. Equally powerful are the numerous vignettes that Hemingway intersperses between the stories, many of them harrowing slices of war.Hemingway’s contemporary, F. Scott Fitzgerald, gives us Jazz Age Stories. It’s within these pages that you can experience the remarkable “Diamond As Big As The Ritz“, an astonishing tale of money, power, fear (of losing it) and the complete moral bankruptcy that ensues. This is an unparalleled story of illusion and disillusion. It creeps up on you and will echo for years and years.While The Catcher in the Rye has become such an iconic cultural phenomenon, its often forgotten that J.D. Salinger wrote anything else. Unless of course you’ve read Franny and Zooey, or Raise High the Roof Beam. Or my personal choice, the collection Nine Stories. Then you never forget. This is dysfunction grounded in reality, not simply splayed out for shock value or a quick laugh. I recommend you revisit the extended Glass family in the deceptively simmering “A Perfect Day For Bananafish.”In recent years, I’ve come to regard Anton Chekhov as the master of the form. Any collection will do. Try Lady With Lapdog and Other Stories. I challenge you to find an unnecessary or misplaced word. Simple, perfect writing. These selections just scratch the surface, and of course there’s no shortage of good contemporary short fiction. But it serves us well to be reminded from time to time of “the greats” – not as an untouchable force that stomps on any newcomers, but rather as artistic touchstones that let you approach, and that remind you of first principles. These masters have given us a vital part of our literary canon.Also recommended: The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol, Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and Other Stories by Oscar Wilde, James Joyce’s (surprisingly readable) Dubliners, and Where I’m Calling From by Raymond Carver