Forgive me. I know everybody in the world has a Top 10 List about something. And I know that every writer ever created has a list of favorite books and writers and poems and short stories and blah, blah, blah.
But I promise you, this isn’t a simple “Top 10 Best” list. Yes, the stories I note below are some of my favorites, but this is not a list of my likes and influences. This is a list of gems that you might have heard about or might not have heard about. It purposely shies away from any “best” pretensions, which is why you won’t see titles like Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery or Ambrose Bierce’s An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge. Although, for the record, they’re both dynamite stories.
No, my intention is not to pontificate, it is to offer some shining examples of good, usually daring writing that can teach you a thing or two, no matter how many times you read them.
All the pieces are, mercifully, easy to find in collections and anthologies.
The Night Face Up, Julio Cortazar. If you’ve never read Cortazar, please start. And start with this, his most hallucinatory (and that’s saying something!) short about the waking nightmare of a motorcycle accident victim. What it can teach you: How to tell two stories at once without tipping your hand. Cortazar was the acknowledged master of dual realities, and even if its plot is stylistically a little out of date, his effortlessly breathless pace is something worth learning about.
Extinctions In Paradise, Brian Hodge. “They kill children here. Let me make that clear from the beginning.” If there is one opening salvo I wish I had written it is this one. In four short words, Hodge drops rabid dystopia in your lap and then takes a casual stroll through the freakshow that his journalist hero covers. This is a horror piece, but it transcends mere genre. As Hodge often does. Horror fan or not, he is a genuinely dazzling writer well worth reading. What it can teach you: Almost journalistic (due in no small part to the fact that the narrator is a reporter), this story is a perfect example of how cool detachment and objectivity make a story all the more chilling. The prose is simple, bordering on sparse at times. And so straightforward that the horror is left for the reader to come up with on his own.
The Crucifixion Considered as an Uphill Bicycle Race, Alfred Jarry. Hard to say anything else without being redundant. The title says it all as far as the storyline goes. Very brief and so resonant that the great J.G. Ballard openly borrowed the idea and related it to the JFK assassination. What it can teach you: Daring. The very title is enough to piss off half the electorate in the United States alone. But get past that and read it. It is an invaluable satire on the commercialization of all things, including what is for so many people one of the most sacred moments in human history. Read it online.
The Bet , Anton Chekov. Literary fiction is mainly about how characters change or what defines them as people. Not many have done it better than Chekov did here, in this short work about a man who literally puts his life on hold for decades in order to win a bet, only to learn that the stakes don’t matter. What it can teach you: Insight. This is a near-perfect story of human maturity, while at the same time a rather cynical observation on the only true way to reach peace. It also neatly plays with the theme of isolation versus solitude and the nature of enlightenment through quiet reflection and learning.
The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien. This almost won the Pulitzer Prize and is probably familiar to those of you who have taken a fiction class or two. But if you don’t know it, this story about the men who make up a particular contingent of soldiers in Vietnam is legitimately regarded as one of the best short works of the 20th century. What it can teach you: How to tell a character story without directly talking about the characters. O’Brien lets us get to know the men by knowing what physical objects are the most meaningful. In a situation in which every second means potential death, what objects are most important? And what does it say about the person who carries them?
Gone, Tom Junod. Full disclosure: This is my absolute favorite piece of non-fiction. It is the story of a group of American workers in Ecuador who end up on a forced hostage march through the jungle and to the edge of complete insanity. It also is about the other victims of the kidnapping — the mens’ families. What it can teach you: How to tell it like it is. Junod manages quite a coup by writing something only he could write while disappearing behind the chaotic, tense, confusing situation that has no end in sight. If it were fiction it would be the perfect character study — how to distinctly draw each character through the emotions he or she feels. Every person’s pain is vivid and personal, and somehow universal. The parts are astounding. The sum even better. And all the more unforgettable because the answer to it all is almost meaningless. Read it online.
Digibabble, Fairy Dust, and the Human Anthill, Tom Wolfe. I’ve never liked Tom Wolfe. I find his writing insipid and self-impressed. But this one? Bullseye. Wolfe somehow manages to encapsulate and expand the death of the Analog Age and the triumph of the dawning Digital Age while making the case that Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s theological dream of the noosphere has become a reality in the Internet. What it can teach you: How to draw complex, seemingly disparate ideas into a cohesive and persuasive argument. This is for sure an opinionated piece, with balls big enough to cow a rhino. And it’s a terrific reminder that writing can be bold and fearless and intelligent at the same time. In other words, how to write for the jugular.
The Crash of EgyptAir 990, William Langewiesche. An example of reporting at its finest. Without taking sides, Langewiesche manages to convey the primacy of bullshit over all, through the griping tale of a jumbo jet that crashed into the ocean for no good reason whatsoever. And he does it without hyperbole or graphic description. What it can teach you: The value of research and of objectivity. Langewiesche’s writing is clear and engaging and (and I mean this in a good way) almost like listening to the black box recording of the crash itself. Never invasive or attitudinal, it is, nonetheless, a complete triumph of facts over feelings.
Oh No! Not Another Boring Steve Carlton Interview, Diane K. Shah. Steve Carlton, ace pitcher for the Phillies in the 1970s, was legendary for his prickly nature, especially around sports journalists. In fact, he scared reporters to death. Shah deftly (and hilariously) turns the tables on him in a very short piece that is so good, even Carlton said he liked it. What it can teach you: Inventiveness and the power of whimsy. Shah was as scared of Carlton as anyone else (rumor had it that he actually carried a sidearm, but who knows — or cares, really — if that’s true?). And she was as lost as anyone else to come up with anything new to ask him. But she found a way, and it’s gold.
Divided Feast, Anne Hull. Hull, who writes for the Washington post, is one of the best at finding humanity in her feature subjects. This piece is a terrific character study as seen through the lens of a Fresh Foods (it’s a lot like Whole Foods) supermarket. What it can teach you: Two things, really. One, how to pay attention to the world around you, and the other, how to turn setting into a character. The depth of the people Hull features in this piece could only come from pure observation and immersion. And you come away understanding why the situation is the way it is.
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