Recently, a friend said to me, "Hey, George, if a space alien beamed you up to his ship and demanded that you explain what being human is like, what would you say?"
"Well," I said, "I'd advise the alien to spend a few days reading short stories." Short stories are the deep, encoded crystallizations of all human knowledge. They are rarefied, dense meaning machines, shedding light on the most pressing of life's dilemmas. By reading a thoughtfully selected set of them, our alien could, in a few hours, learn everything he needs to know about the way we live. Except how it feels to lose one's car in a parking garage and walk around for like three hours, trying to look as if you know where you're going, so the people driving by—who have easily found their cars, having written the location on their wrists or something—don't think badly of you. I don't think there's a short story about that yet.
This is George Saunders' list of recommended short stories, and it's worth perusing as it isn't inundated with the same classics you see on every such list.
It feels like short stories are read even less frequently today than when I was younger, if that's possible. Yet when I was an English major taking creative writing classes, fancying myself a budding artist, all we read and wrote were short stories. I remember stumbling upon a collection of short stories by Tobias Wolff at Green Library at Stanford one afternoon while checking out books for another class. I brought it back to my dorm room and ended up devouring the entire collection over a single fevered day of reading.
The demand in a short story for an economy of words brings out the best in most writers. I have not read many short stories the past few years. That's something I plan to rectify the year ahead.