Keep it light.

On a quiet morning last summer, I ran my fingers along the row of books on a shelf in our living room. I stopped at one heavy-weight: The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction, 2nd edition. I scanned the table of contents. James Baldwin, Ernest Hemingway, Franz Kafka, Flannery O’Connor. Over fourteen hundred pages of classics written by heavily-studied authors. But, it wasn’t the classics that made me walk to the table and sit down with the book. It was the very first story, right there on page one: Woody Allen’s “A Giant Step for Mankind.”

Bound alongside “The Metamorphosis” and “Hills Like White Elephants” is Woody Allen’s story about three scientists who almost discover the secret behind the Heimlich Maneuver. I laughed out loud the first time I read it, with its high register language describing the research behind “dinner-table choking.” But, beyond the humor, Woody Allen’s writing is a great example of how to show, not tell. My favorite introduction to one of the characters presents a picture so clear I can almost see the smudges on his glasses:

His beard is of a medium length but seems to grow with the irrational abandon of crabgrass. Add to this thick, bushy brows and beady eyes the size of microbes, which dart about suspiciously behind spectacles the thickness of bulletproof glass. And then there are the twitches. The man has accumulated a repertoire of facial tics and blinks that demand nothing less than a complete musical score by Stravinsky.

I love this story. If you haven’t read it, you should — even if you can’t stand Woody Allen.

Sometimes classic literature reads heavy and dark to me. I often wonder if, to be a truly successful writer, you have to be a depressive. Reading Woody Allen’s short fiction counteracts that myth. His story not only drew a hearty belly laugh from me today, it reminded me that I don’t have to take my writer self quite so seriously.

What’s hiding on your bookshelf?

*****************************************************************

  • The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction, 2nd edition. Copyright 1981 by W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. [ISBN 0-393-95178-2]
  • Woody Allen, “A Giant Step for Mankind,” copyright 1980. Originally published in Side Effects by Woody Allen (Random House, Inc.). [ISBN 0-345-34335-2]
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2 responses to “Keep it light.

  1. Nothing light is hiding on my bookshelf right now, but I’m having fun exploring genres I don’t usually read (horror, SciFi) through the Every Day Fiction stories.

    I have a collection of Woody Allen’s essays, I should check to see whether it includes the story.

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