By Mina Shah
For many of us, regardless of how our personal lives have been, 2016 was a pretty terrible year, and 2017 doesn’t promise to be much better. In fact, in light of the Senate confirmation hearings over the past few weeks, it actually seems that it will become much worse. Even with great shows of solidarity over the weekend, I remain pessimistic with regard to large-scale social change, because the American public simply does not have the political capital to make the sort of long-term systemic change that so many of us currently crave.
Given this current political climate, 2017 should become the year of trying to make as much change as possible on the micro level. In order to learn how such change-making might be possible, we must read more and read more kinds of texts, and we should certainly be prioritizing all kinds of fiction.
Reading fiction is important for many reasons. It can help heal and promote the cultivation of greater empathy for people who may seem unlike ourselves at first pass. It teaches us how to deal with various ethical conundrums, putting us in positions to imagine what we would do if faced with similar ethical dilemmas as the characters. Reading fiction is better for our brains than watching TV and can be just as entertaining.
Enter the short story. Short stories are a great medium for the present, because as self-contained units, they can be read individually, without necessarily needing to make a commitment to an entire book. This can be particularly useful for people who are too busy to read for pleasure. Short stories can be straightforward or nuanced and complex, and they are short enough such that if you don’t end up enjoying their style, you aren’t bound to them for several hundred pages. They are also, as author Junot Diaz has said, perfectible, which gives the space for the critics in us to take a rest. If we approach a short story with the understanding that they may be perfect, that each move is intentional, we can focus on solving the puzzle of the story instead of getting bogged down by the idea of critiquing its content or its structure.
For these 2017 journeys in short stories, a good collection to start with is ZZ Packer’s “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere,” published in 2003. Packer’s stories are pithy and engaging. They trace a diverse group of characters as they navigate the challenges of their lives, whether those challenges are related to coming of age, working on their interpersonal relationships or figuring out how to deal with the structural inequalities of the world surrounding them. Each of the stories has moments of lightness that highlight love between characters, or moments of humor that can make the reader laugh out loud.
Engaging as they are, though, these stories are not always light. They do not allow the reader to escape from the problems of the world around them, but instead, they allow us to spend a few hours thinking about other people’s problems. This tempering is good for us, since we exist in a society that encourages so much inwardness and often prioritizes selfishness over empathy and community development.
The thing about short stories that can sometimes be difficult is that when they end, sometimes you feel like you are getting punched in the stomach. The author eases you into getting to know the characters, and then all of a sudden, as soon as you are settled and beginning to empathize, the story is over, the characters never to be seen or heard from again. There is a sort of beauty to this. The loss at the end of a short story can remind us how it feels to lose a friend. If we can understand this feeling in a deep enough way, perhaps we will be better at celebrating and uplifting human life. And if we uplift human life, perhaps we can achieve a better version of our species in which we do less harm to one another.
Packer’s stories help us to learn this. Her characters encourage us to care about them, and when her short stories finish, we want to spend more time with the friends we’ve made in them. They teach us empathy and the importance of supporting one another. If we read “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere” in 2017, maybe we can save the year from being the debacle that it’s shaping up to be so far.
Contact Mina Shah at minashah ‘at’ stanford.edu.