March 4, 2022 | 3:21pm EST
I’m sure I am not alone in my experience growing up an avid reader. My elementary school library was a haven of shelves that used to seem so tall and carpet worn by years of little shoes. I can still remember running to sit in a circle, criss-cross-applesauce, to listen to a story read aloud by the librarian. I would take books home every weekend, adding a bead to a string I kept every time I finished a new book. I was not a fast reader, but I was steady, consistent, and I loved stories.
As I grew up, without me realizing exactly when, the joy I felt when I opened a book faded. However, I was reading chapters in textbooks for history, biology, even math more than ever. I read the classics for my English class that I sometimes liked and sometimes didn’t, but never anything that I chose. I collected books from birthdays and holidays that I claimed I would read “soon,” but remained indefinitely unopened. I’m sure I missed out on many stories, but after long days at school and longer nights up studying with pages upon pages of required reading that I would be tested on later, I lacked both the time and motivation to read just for fun. Later, in high school, I found myself starting books from my growing collection that I never finished. I would get through the first half and then put it down, never to pick it back up due to particularly busy weeks or just out of boredom. It’s not even that the books were bad, I had simply lost my passion for recreational reading, burnt out from the academic pressure to only read with the goal of writing a paper or completing a test.
In the summer I sometimes got a taste of my younger self, who would read every night to go to sleep or curl up on a Saturday with a book, absentmindedly swinging my legs off the back of a chair. In the summer the pressure was off and with nothing in particular to do, I found myself getting lost in stories again. It was temporary though, the summer would end and the books on my bedside table would remain closed in exchange for, you guessed it, more required reading. When I got to college my schedule only got busier and my workload only increased. The idea of picking up a 300+ page book of my own choosing to read on top of my academic work seemed more like a chore than a way to relax at that point.
I was up especially late one night, desperate for anything to calm my mind enough for sleep, so I grabbed the only book on my nightstand. In all honesty, the book had been acting more like a coaster for my water bottle and other miscellaneous things up until this point. My mom had given me the book right before I left for college. It was a book of short stories, ironically enough titled The Best American Nonrequired Reading (2019) Edited by Edan Lepucki. I came to learn that this book is an anthology containing fiction and nonfiction short stories selected by a group of high school students every year. I opened the table of contents, chose a story by title alone, flipped to the page, and started reading. Twenty pages later and I was done. I finished a whole story of my choosing from start to finish and it had taken me less than half an hour. It may not have been a whole book, but it was a complete story. I remember feeling so satisfied after. It was a light, easy read, I had no feeling of guilt or responsibility to finish it later, and no worry that I may never finish the story if I walked away. Picking that book up and flipping to a new story whenever I had the time became an easy habit and soon enough I finished all the stories, feeling a sense of accomplishment after every one.
When I went home for winter break I found another book of short stories on my shelf, I didn't even remember when or where I got it. This one, called Arbitrary Stupid Goal by Tamara Shopsin, wasn’t an anthology from different authors, but rather a collection of Tamara Shopsin’s own observations and experiences growing up in New York. They were even shorter, some only a page long. I could read a few whenever I had the time and I could stop whenever, so that's what I did. I returned to campus in the spring with yet another book of short stories in tow.
What I love about these collections of short stories is that they are so unintimidating. As busy college students, it can be easy to get overwhelmed, but we all have 20 minutes here or there to spare. If you are anything like me and you have felt like you are in a reading rut or just want to try something new I could not recommend getting a book of short stories enough. Once you start looking for them you realize there are so many more than you would think, by various authors and spanning across all genres.
I’ll always be grateful to them because they helped me reignite my love of reading. Picking these books up doesn't feel like a chore, in fact, I look forward to having some free time to read one. Sometimes I’ll sit down and flip to a new page and although my legs touch all the way to the ground now, for those 20 mins I feel like I did back in elementary school, letting my mind get swept away by a story.