The Long and the Short of It
As the anniversary of Leo Tolstoy's death approches, one thing comes to mind when we think of the preeminent Russian novelist: War and Peace and giant doorstopper novels.
We love 1000+-page books here at NYPL—but we also love to see our favorite long-form writers apply their talents to shorter pieces.
So we asked our expert library staff to pick out their favorite short pieces (poems, essays, short stories, novellas) by authors primarily known for their longer works.
With his poem “Instructions,” fantasy author Neil Gaiman gives readers the do’s and don’ts for discovering the magical and how to still get home safe and sound IF that’s what they want.
From the back garden you will be able to see the wild wood.
The deep well you walk past leads down to Winter’s realm;
There is another land at the bottom of it.
If you turn around here,
you can walk back, safely;
you will lose no face. I will think no less of you.
Thomas Hardy is best known for writing some (moderately) long novels (Tess of the D’urbervilles, Far from the Madding Crowd, and Jude The Obscure are three of his most famous works), but he also wrote poetry all his life, in many forms. One of his loveliest poems begins:
If it’s ever spring again,
I shall go where went I when
Down the moor-cock splashed, and hen,
Seeing me not, amid their flounder,
Standing with my arm around her;
If it’s ever spring again,
I shall go where went I then.
That poem can be found in The Complete Poetical Works of Thomas Hardy. —Wayne Roylance, Selection Team
Herman Melville, the author of Moby Dick, also wrote a novella called Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street, which appears in his collection of short stories The Piazza Tales. Symbolism of death, separation and isolation is woven throughout the story of a ghost-like young man who cannot seem to be reached by any of his peers, and who refuses to communicate with them, even though he is always present at the building where they work. While Bartleby is a sad story, the numerous complex themes hinted at throughout the novella make it an engaging read. —Christina Lebec, Bronx Library Center
I recommend William T. Vollman’s Whores for Gloria. Vollman is known for paperweight giants, but Whores for Gloria, a novella at 154 pages, may serve many as an introduction to Vollman’s intimidating body of work. The novella follows an alcoholic Vietnam vet named Jimmy who is on a quest for an idealized woman (named Gloria) who may or may not exist. Vollman’s dizzying surreal portrait of a frantic nobody wandering San Francisco’s Tenderloin district in search for “stories” is both darkly engaging and deliciously repellent. —Andrew Fairweather, Seward Park
Jared Diamond—best known for his scientific tomes on species and cultures, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies—published a short book for a younger set in 2014. The Third Chimpanzee for Young People: On the Evolution and Future of the Human Animal is a thought-provoking and notably accessible examination of human evolution and nature. —Miriam Tuliao, Selection Team
David Foster Wallace, best known for his mammoth novel Infinite Jest, is easily one of my favorite writers. He’s thoughtful, sensitive, and super smart, with a bit of a countercultural edge. I love his essays as much as his fiction. My favorite is “E Unibas Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” which tackles topics like commercialism and cynicism in American popular culture. You can find it in his collection of essays, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. —Nancy Aravecz, Mid-Manhattan Library
I would second David Foster Wallace, but my favorite essay in that collection is ”Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All,” which tells of a visit he made to the Illinois State Fair. I nearly choked laughing, having suffered through many state fairs while my son was in 4H. —Maura Muller, Volunteer Office
Joyce Carol Oates is a master of the short story and her book reviews are read with avidity, but her short nonfiction work, “On Boxing,” is one of the works for which she’s known best. Given her mastery of the written word, her lyrical prose at once captures the technical aspects of this most ancient and revered of sports and the poetry of action within the boxing ring. —Virginia Bartow, Rare Books
I love James Joyce’s collection of short stories, Dubliners. Being forced to pick a favorite, I have to go with “The Dead.” That moment when Gretta is frozen at the top of the stairs by hearing a song that a long-ago lover, now dead, used to sing to her. And just how wrong her husband Gabriel is about everything. —Lynn Lobash, Readers Services
Lauren Groff is predominantly known for her fascinating novels like Fates and Furies, but Delicate Edible Birds is her collection of perfectly crafted short stories. The last story is a harrowing account of a group of journalists trapped by a sadistic farmer in a barn in Nazi Germany and the sacrifices they have to make to survive. —Caitlyn Colman-McGaw, Young Adult Programming
Stephen King is well known for his supernatural horror tomes, but one of my favorite stories by him is in his short story collection Night Shift. ”The Last Rung on the Ladder” is a beautifully built story that slowly lures you into a past childhood that is breathless and brilliant… then turns the knife into your heart at the end. It remains vivid in my mind from the day I heard it read aloud. —Stephanie Whelan, Seward Park
Great suggestion, Stephanie! Night Shift is a wonderful short story collection, I have read many stories from it for Story Time for Grown-Ups. I particularly like “The Graveyard Shift” and “The Boogeyman.” And King does have some looong works like Insomnia (800 pages) and 11/22/63 (849 pages). —Lois M. Moore, Mid-Manhattan
I love Haruki Murakami’s short story “On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning.” It and other of his short stories can be found in The Elephant Vanishes. —Leslie Bernstein, Mott Haven
Science-fiction writers spend a lot of words creating new civilizations. But a few of the 1940s and 1950s magazines ran 1-page or less stories. They demanded strong plots with almost no descriptions, which can produce quite a wallop. I like this anthology of very short stories by science fiction writers who usually produced very long epics. —Barbara Cohen-Stratyner, Exhibitions
Thomas Mann is known for weighty tomes such as The Magic Mountain and the Biblical tetralogy Joseph and His Brothers, but he also wrote exquisite short works of fiction. Two of my favorites are about life crises of writers: “Tonio Kröger,” a Bildungsroman in miniature, and “Death in Venice,” which tells of the last days of the celebrated Gustav von Aschenbach, who after a life of emotional discipline finally allows himself to indulge in a passion so boundless it can only be sated in death. Both will be found in these collections. —Kathie Coblentz, Rare Books
Harlan Ellison is not famous for writing doorstops but the man is prolific, with a prodigious body of work spanning fiction and science fiction, novels, novellas, short stories, television scripts, film scripts and even a continuing credit on the series Babylon 5. One short story of his that’s always stuck in my memory is “Soldier from Tomorrow.” Found in The Essential Ellison, it is the tale of accidental time-traveler Qarlo Clobreggny, an infantryman from a dystopian future of chronic warfare. —Joshua Soule, Spuyten Duyvil
I love William Faulkner’s "A Rose for Emily" (found in Selected Short Stories of William Faulkner and other collections) ever since I read it in high school—and let me tell you, that was a few decades back. “The man himself lay on the bed”—that line still gives me chills. —Danita Nichols, Inwood
Staff picks are chosen by NYPL staff members and are not intended to be comprehensive lists. We'd love to hear your picks, so leave a comment and tell us what you’d recommend.
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