The point of this month’s 30 Day Lifestyle Experiment was to expand on and to improve the experience of my daily commute to/from work each day. I spend anywhere from 7-10 hours per week (364-520hrs/year) commuting so why not try to make that chunk of my life better? Back in September I did another public transit experiment where I had one new conversation per day with strangers on my commute to work. That experiment actually resulted in many casual friendships and now I routinely chat with people while waiting for the train or even for the entire ride. Even though I find it to be fun and fulfilling, I can’t just chat up people on the train every day, most of the time I just read books or take naps. I thought about reading poetry, essays, or speeches but eventually selected short stories because I’ve been reading books on my commute to work for a few years but still I’ve only been through a handful of different authors. Therefore I felt that reading a new short story every day would be a good way to find new authors that I might like.
I soon realized how perfect short stories were for train commuting, I’m sold and I highly recommend giving them a try. It can be difficult to immerse yourself in a long novel (depending on the length of your commute). I can generally get through 10-15 pages of a dense book during my commute, so you can see how reading a 500 page book only 10 pages at a time can be kind of annoying. Especially for a really intense book, hopping in and out of the plot can be tough. The short story was perfect because you can read most of them from start to finish in about 20 minutes. Some of the deeper yet shorter books I actually read twice during the same commute. There was something gratifying about finishing a story on the way to work, I felt like I had accomplished something during a time where had I been driving, I’d simply be sitting in traffic.
I started off getting all of my books from the Boston Public Library, which worked great because I did it all online. You can go online, login, reserve books, the staff will find them for you, and then you can pick them up at your convenience. However, this can take 5 business days and eventually lacking the foresight to do this ahead of time, I only managed to do it for the first two weeks. I found it much easier to do a Google search for a pdf of the short story and then just read them on my computer. What took me 45 minutes in a library (not counting the walking to and from) only took me 15 seconds on my computer using Google… and the internet wins again. I could have also gone with the Kindle route but I didn’t want to spend the money on one and didn’t get around to borrowing a friends’.
As expected, there were some stories that I really liked, some that I really disliked, and a bunch that were somewhere in the middle. Here are my personal recommendations on 5 great and 5 not-so-great short stories for the young and urban train commute.
- The Second Bakery Attack by Haruki Murakami – In an attempt to lift a curse off their lives, two newlyweds robbed a MacDonalds at 3am for 20 Big Macs… and they lived happily ever after. I thought the story was told really well, it was a very interesting read, and I didn’t expect the ending. Great for a short read on the train.
- To Build a Fire by Jack London – A fantastic story of (not) survival in the heart of an Alaskan winter. It came to me recommended by many people and I’ll turn around and recommend it to others, it was captivating through and through.
- The Secret Life of Walter Mitty by James Thurber – Walter Mitty leads a painfully boring life so he routinely escapes to alternate fantasy realities where he’s the world’s best trauma surgeon, a WWII pilot, a man on trial for murder and others. His fantasies took me right into the plot and his unfortunate reality I recognize everywhere and empathized with.
- The Tell Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe – A man murders his elderly housemate and when the police come to investigate, the sound of the old man’s beating heart drives him insane and he confesses. A classic we all read in middle school but totally worth revisiting as an “adult”.
- Eiger Dreams by Jon Krakauer – A tale of Krakauer’s defeat on the Eiger’s legendary north face. I’m bias toward adventure stories and while this may not be the most classic short story out there, I loved it. I also recommend the audiotape version, particularly if it’s winter and it’s snowing outside. This story came in a book of adventure short stories, all of which I’m planning to read soon.
Not So Great:
- The Use of Force by William Carlos Williams – An uncomfortably creepy story about a doctor who is in romance with the pain of his patients, especially a little girl with a throat infection. I didn’t find the story to be engaging and I couldn’t empathize with any of the characters. Simply a creepy doctor with a fetish for pain, I don’t recommend it.
- A Perfect Day for Banana Fish by J.D. Salinger – This girl has a sketchy boyfriend, she takes a nap, he comes in from the beach… and then blows his brains out in their hotel room while she sleeps. That’s pretty much the whole story right there, I’d rather read the story about her waking up and the events afterward. I definitely wouldn’t read it again.
- The Happy Man by Jonathan Lethem – A man’s soul will routinely leave the real world to visit hell. The only way to leave Hell is to visit the Happy Mal, a colonel who rapes him repeatedly. The story was told very well, dream-like and captivating, I’m just not that into brutal raping and child molestation. It had so much potential, but stories of repressed sexual abuse just don’t jive well with my train commute.
- In the Penal Colony by Franz Kafka – An officer explains an elaborate torture device that he manages for his country’s army despite it having been out of favor with everyone for a long time. He realizes this and then uses it on himself in hopes for a glorified death. However, instead of the intricate and somehow spiritual death he’s always dreamed of, it malfunctions and brutally kills him. On a scale from 1-10 I give it an, “Eh”.
- The Gunslinger by Stephen King – A gunslinger is chasing a sorcerer through the desert. Sounds awesome right? However, instead of any chasing, the story includes him repeatedly having sex with a large ugly barmaid and then the story ends with him shooting every living person in the town and leaving for the desert. I’ve heard the rest of the series is better, but I wouldn’t recommend this as a short story on its own.
Other Notable Books from my Train Commute this Month:
- The Necklace by Guy de Maupassant
- The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving
- The Nightingale and the Rose by Oscar Wilde
- All Summer in a Day by Ray Bradbury
- Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut
- Pamola has a Smoke by Leroy Dudley
- A Near View of the High Sierra by John Muir
- The Snows of Kilimanjaro by Ernest Hemingway
- A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
- The Ransom of Red Chief by O. Henry
To see more of the books I’ve read and reviewed, check out my virtual bookshelf from Shelfari.com: