9 Amazing Classic Short Stories To Stimulate the Mind This Summer

Under the weather from the groggy summer heat? These next classical short stories will surely help get those brain engines running!

Literary Fiction Recommendations

We all like summer. School’s out, vacation starts and outdoor activities draw in those who like the burn of the summer heat. But for some, we could do without the sun this season. Just going outside for a bit has us sweating like we ran a marathon, leaving us in a hazy daze. A sudden heaviness that turns our minds to doing nothing is the worst state.

The cure for such a case? Why reading, of course! Reading keeps the brain moving and is a kind of mental exercise. For these next entries, classical short stories that are still significant today will have your mind focusing so intently to decipher their themes and messages that you’ll survive the summer heat (along with the power of air conditioning).

Sonny’s Blues by James Baldwin

Musicians are their brand of misfortune. The struggle, energy, dedication, and effort it takes to make it big in the entertainment industry takes a toll on the players, who most don’t even make it up on stage. Sometimes, it will head to unfortunate circumstances.

Sonny’s Blues by James Baldwin, book cover of presumably Sonny playing the piano.

The narrator of Sonny’s Blues doesn’t understand his brother Sonny, a pianist grappling with his drug addiction, only recently getting out of jail for possession and use. Despite his struggles, Sonny loves playing the piano so much that it’s a struggle for him to command the music, that we, the readers and the narrator, can only watch as Sonny suffers through the little bit of life we see. Baldwin writes in a way that distances us and the narrator from Sonny, never knowing what he’s thinking, what he’s going through with his addiction, only coming to know who Sonny is by the end of the story, and is a gut punch to the face.

Cathedral by Raymond Carver

Cathedral by Raymond Carver, book cover of a house with a single light on.

Looking at a glance and truly seeing something is explored in Carver’s Cathedral. Between the narrator, who can see but is blind to the emotional connection with his wife, and Robert, who’s blind but somehow has a more intimate view of life, from his recently deceased wife to the narrator’s wife, who confide and understands each other more than she and her husband. How something simple yet complex as describing a cathedral to a blind man makes for an interesting introspection for the narrator, who comes out learning more than he expected from his previous stereotyping of the blind.

The Story of An Hour by Kate Chopin

The Story of an Hour, book cover of a woman's black and white picture.

Many things can happen during an hour, and Chopin puts in a lot for poor Louise Mallard. Beautifully written, The Story of an Hour is filled with so much detail and emotion from Louise Mallard, who just received news of her husband’s sudden death caused by a train crashing off the rails, and in that hour, Louise’s emotions swirl all over the place. What could’ve been the five stages of grief that slowly change at a slow pace is a rush as Louise expresses sadness for her husband’s death and skips the other stages straight to joyous anticipation of being a free woman. Louise’s light giddiness will cause people to ask themselves whether she even loved her husband while also sympathizing with her. Read this just for the ending. It’s a definite kicker.

The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas by Ursula K. Le Guin, book cover

Everyone wishes they could live the perfect life in a place where nothing ever goes wrong. A place where there’s no sickness, poverty, misery, or suffering. A town that’s a true Utopia has to exist somewhere, right? In Omelas, utopia has been achieved, but at what cost? Something had to be given to reap the rewards of a perfect town. Guin answers that question through a single child, revealing to those who live in the Omelas decide what to do with the gritty truth behind their paradise. The outcome will make you think of your ways of living and what you take for granted.

The Dead by James Joyce

Part of a collection of short stories called Dubliners, The Dead is a dense read that is still analyzed in schools today for Joyce’s descriptive, emotional beats.

The dead by James Joyce, book cover of a woman playing the piano.

A lot goes on, and you’ll easily scramble yourself in which parts of the story are considered important to understand the overall issue Joyce is trying to convey, as a party takes up most of the setting. Many characters are introduced, and it’s hard to remember who’s who. Here is some advice: Focus on what the main character, Gabriel Conroy, does and how he reacts in the story. Even a small, insignificant throwaway sentence reveals a lot about Gabriel, a professor whose marriage is more stained than he cares to admit. This story will work the brain into concentration.

Shiloh by Bobbie Ann Mason

How does a couple, after losing a child, stay together after such a tragic loss? By not even talking or living together, the perfect answer Leroy Moffitt doesn’t know he’s in.

Shiloh by Bobbie Ann Mason, book cover.

Leroy, a truck driver who is rarely at home, and his wife, Norma Jean, are forced to face their unspoken marital problems after an accident places Leroy at home to rest. Leroy obliviously enjoys this, wanting to spend time with his wife and dreaming of building a cabin so they can be a real married couple. But such a dream can’t be achieved so easily if it’s something Norma Jean doesn’t seem to want. I felt for Leroy, who desperately wanted his marriage to work. I’d probably feel the same for Norma Jean, with her having to deal with the death of her baby alone in an empty house. We can only imagine, analyze, and piece together her story from the story’s context.

Bartleby, The Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street by Herman Melville

Bartleby, The Scrivener, book cover.

Bartleby might represent today’s society. When someone asks Bartleby to do something, he’ll say, “I would prefer not to,” as many people wish they could respond on the job (without risk). But the calmness oozing from Bartleby prevents him from being fired by the narrator who’s a lawyer. The narrator knows Bartleby does his job well, and the story is about him questioning Bartleby’s actions and the sudden dissolution of the man slowly detaching himself from life. As the narrator and the readers witness how lifeless Bartleby becomes, it’s a question of what’s going on with the scrivener, and whether there’s a way to help when he doesn’t want it.

Yellow Woman by Leslie Marmon Silko

Cheating is never okay. No one likes it when the love of your life falls in love with another person and then isn’t even truthful enough to talk about their dwindling love to their spouse.

Yellow Woman by Leslie Marmon Silko.

That being said, Silko makes a one-night encounter between a woman and a man sound mythical, based on her story from “The Yellow Woman,” a tale of a woman who goes with a spirit for a long, leaving behind her family. Then, the Yellow Woman suddenly comes back home with twins. Even with the modern setting, Silko’s writing is as if this was the Yellow Woman tale. This most definitely is infidelity from the narrator, who’s married, but the writing makes light of the matter. You can decide whether to get mad at the narrator’s husband or wish to see more of Silva and the narrator’s interactions, wondering if there’s real love between the two.

Separating by John Updike

Separating by John Updike, book cover of a person on top of rocks.

There are no bad guys in this story, just a couple going through a difficult situation that couldn’t be fixed. That doesn’t stop your mind from going through every detail, trying to figure out who’s at fault for the story’s potential divorce. Richard Maple, who’s just a sad man going through the motions, and Joan, who already has a specific plan for how to tell their children. She seems anxiously eager for the couple’s separation, as told from Richard’s perspective. The tone is melancholy; some will wish there’d be a better way for the couple or agree that separation is the best course of action. The outcome is still just sad.

Though not long, these short stories will drag you into such immersive storytelling, that you’ll come out contemplating their words and hold on to those life lessons. And hopefully, your brain will come out stronger against the summer’s boiling sunlight.

Click here to find out what’s the Bookstr team’s favorite short stories!

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