Today’s recommendation: a collection of true short stories compiled by one of my favorite writers, Paul Auster, for NPR’s National Story Project.
In April 1946, Theodore Lustig was discharged after serving three years in the army in World War II. Heading home on a train to New Jersey, he had grand plans for his new life. First, he bought a white shirt: a symbol of his return to a normal routine. The next step? Finding the girl of his dreams: his high school crush.
In his very short piece — “What If?” — he writes:
We got on the same bus — hers — and sat together reminiscing about the past and talking about the future. I told her of my plans and showed her the shirt I had bought — my first step toward making my dream come true. I didn’t tell her that she was supposed to be step two.
“What If?” is just one story among the 180 true stories in I Thought My Father Was God: And Other True Tales From NPR’s National Story Project, a compilation of the best submissions to Paul Auster for this story project on All Things Considered. Each tale is a small window into one stranger’s life: a glimpse into the American mind and heart. The stories are grouped into broad themes: animals, objects, families, slapstick, strangers, war, love, death, dreams, and meditations.
Another tale, “Table For Two” by Lori Peikoff, is a two-page love story. Lori tells the first encounter between her mother and father at a neighborhood restaurant in New York City:
“A tragic life for poor dear Pip,” my father said when he saw the tattered cover of Great Expectations. My mother looked up at him, and at that moment, she recalls, she saw something strangely familiar in his eyes. Years later, when I begged her to tell me the story one more time, she sighed sweetly and said, “I saw myself in his eyes.”
I won’t ruin it by saying anything more — if you aren’t able to get your hands on the book, read the archived version on NPR.
Most of the stories are just a few pages long. They’re quick reads, but they run deep: the sad, poignant tales pierce you where it hurts the most, and the whimsical ones — the ones that capture the magic within our lives — can truly make your day. I’ve picked this book up off my shelf numerous times over the years, flipped to random pages, and read stories again and again. A tale I might not have cared for when I was twenty-one might affect me now, while a story that once made me cry or laugh might not resonate today. And then there are my all-time favorites — no matter the year, no matter my state. It’s that type of book: one you dip into and revisit every so often.
My mind then wandered. I thought of this: I thought of how every day each of us experiences a few little moments that have just a bit more resonance than other moments — we hear a word that sticks in our mind — or maybe we have a small experience that pulls us out of ourselves, if only briefly — we share a hotel elevator with a bride in her veils, say, or a stranger gives us a piece of bread to feed to the mallard ducks in the lagoon; a small child starts a conversation with us in a Dairy Queen — or we have an episode like the one I had with the M&M cars back at the Husky station.
In fact, the stories that I love the most in this book are the short and candid ones.
I’m recommending this book not just because it’s a lovely collection of true stories from ordinary people across the US, but because many of these tales capture great moments — the type that Coupland describes. These stories, from 180 distinct voices, are good examples of nonfiction, of writing that stems from our own lives. Memorable, resonant writing doesn’t have to be long, complex, or intricate. In fact, the stories that I love the most in this book are the short and candid ones.
If you don’t want to buy the book, explore more of the Story Project Archives for a sampling of some of the submissions. Enjoy!