Great Short Stories of the World

This anthology is one of my dusty bargains from a second hand shop. Its old, and looks it. The hardboard covers are bound in a pale cloth, and stained. Perhaps that’s why, having re-homed it several years ago on a high TBR shelf, its been neglected. If I hadn’t decided to do a little rearranging this week who knows how long it would have remained there.

Once opened, it was too tempting to put back. After all, don’t I frequently claim that one of the advantages of short fiction is that it can be dipped into? Admittedly, this volume is hefty. There are, the cover boasts, one thousand and eight pages, containing one hundred and seventy eight stories ‘drawn from all literatures, ancient and modern’ . I don’t have pockets big enough, and if I had, I suspect that after carting this around I’d develop a limp. So this book is now lodged conveniently on the corner of my desk.

The tattered dust jacket is tucked between the pages, too fragile to be other than a bookmark. It’s thick with promises.

‘This miracle, this triumph of bookmaking… has run to no less than ten editions at the original price of eight shillings and sixpence.

I put the figures into a currency convertor. Eight shillings and sixpence would have been the equivalent of a days wages for a skilled tradesman working in Britain in 1926. I’m trying to decide whether I might pay a sixth of my wages for a book, if I was a skilled tradesman. What kind of reader would that make me, what might my aspirations be?

The opening lines of the preface say:

This collection marks the first attempt to bring together in a single volume a characteristic group of the outstanding examples of the Short Story as it has been practiced by writers of almost every race, from the earliest days of civilization down to the present century. Its purpose is not to shew, by a series of texts chosen on academic grounds, how the form developed, but to bring together the best examples of every form by which men have endeavoured [sic] to entertain and instruct their fellows.

How popular has this collection been? My copy, a 1937 reprint, says that, ‘in response to overwhelming public demand it is reissued, complete and unabridged, at 3s 6d.‘ The currency converter tells me that in today’s terms that would be a drop from the 1926 equivalent price of £60 to £24 in 1937. Sounds like a bargain. But, the 1930s were times of turmoil, and although wages had not gone up, and most foodstuffs had dropped in price, there were high levels of unemployment. I’d love to know who did buy this, and why.

After thinking about the history of The Short Story, the preface becomes more practical.

Of recent years there has been a good deal of theorizing about the Short Story as an art form. A whole literature of theory has come into being in order to explain the work of Maupassant and Poe and O. Henry, as well as to guide the would be writer.

Possibly, then, this is useful research for those trying to break into print.

The preface lays much stress on the theory, history and the processes of critical reading. The editors have aspired to gather together ‘little-known or quite forgotten tales.’

There is an academic approach to the division of the book into sections.

The volume… besides being the first to include examples of stories of practically the entire world, introduces several new writers to English and American readers.

At one time non-fiction books were such a popular household item that salesmen hawked encyclopedias and educational literature from door to door. The New Statesman says, ‘This is a most astonishing venture – a library in itself.

I hope Barret H. Clark and Maxim Lieber would be gratified to know that it’s still succeeding on all fronts, so far as I’m concerned. I’ve just finished The Two Brothers, a tale from Egypt, dated by their estimation, at 1400 BC which was entertaining and intriguing.

37 thoughts on “Great Short Stories of the World

  1. An irrelevant sidenote: Looks like Maxim Lieber was an alleged communist spy who fled the US with his family during the Red Scare years 1951 and moved to Mexico. The US took away his citizenship. (Am currently embedded in this murky world with a focus on Agnes Smedley. She wrote short stories about the Long March by China’s Red Army.)

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  2. Fascinating background on who this title might have been aimed at. Inspired by an an earlier comment of yours I started looking back at some collections and selections of short stories I’d blogged about in preparation for a more sustained read of other volumes I’ve got over the coming months, using the tag Library of Brief Narratives (, so I’m pleased you’ve brought this volume to our attention. I’d be interested in their definition of what constitutes a typical short story, its characteristics and their, justification for including the examples in Great Short Stories.

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    • I’m not too sure about your libraries question. They’ve been established in Britain since 1850, but I’ve a hazy memory of being told that there could be local restrictions about how they were used. This volume looks to me like it was intended as part of a ‘home’ library, no doubt for aspirational types… like me? Though that depends on whether the home library is meant as a design feature, or for use.

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  3. From a bookseller’s perspective, it’s great to read about a visually unremarkable book revealing a world of treasures inside. This is the kind of book I’d linger over on my stock-buying sorties. Should I buy it? Will it sit on the shelf for months or maybe years, neglected and unexplored? Invariably, I do buy it, confident that there will be a customer who sees past the shabby exterior and take it home.

    We don’t sell many volumes of short stories – I may need to move the section to a more prominent position – but every now and then, someone will fall on a book such as this with great excitement.
    ‘I love books like this,’ they’ll tell me as they bring it to the counter. ‘I like to imagine who’s read it before me and how it affected them. And it smells so wonderful!’ As one of your respondents commented, imagining former readers and their lives is part of the fun.

    Reactions like these, and indeed yours, are the sweetest rewards of secondhand bookselling. A great endorsement of not judging a book by its cover and of the, hopefully, enduring appeal of words written on paper rather than screens.
    Lovely to read, thanks Cath.

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    • Thank you, Ruth. I do worry about books in this state. I can see how a bookseller might not want too many of them, so it’s good to have such a reassuring response. While I’m not immune to books with beautiful covers, ultimately, it has to be the content, for me.

      I’m impressed that you have a separate section for short stories. So many shops don’t seem to think it necessary. Although maybe that’s because so few are published in the first place that it’s not easy to gather enough copies to create a section.

      May you be blessed with many more of the bookish customers you’ve described so eloquently. If our reactions are your sweetest rewards, as customers, our sweetest temptations are shops like yours. 🙂

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  4. I would like to believe that the publishers enjoyed reading these stories and the idea of collecting great short stories of the world and presenting it in one grand book in style. That this made them and the writers happy. And the readers you ask, one just needs to read Cath’s post to get an idea. 😀
    Thank you dear Cath for this post. Loved it!

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  5. Thank you for this. I love that you included all the quoted introduction sections. They were fascinating. I’ll be on the lookout for something like this as I tidy up my library. Too many are in boxes to find anything readily. I know I have a tome or two of this ilk in there somewhere, and l am looking forward to stumbling upon it. I also appreciated your desk solution for oversized tomes. A few months back I put Collected Works of Poe on her home-school desk saying, “You need a good desk-book.” She loves it, but hasn’t read any yet.

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    • I’m so glad you’ve enjoyed my rambling thoughts, Lance. I love old story books, and treat them as a form of time-travel. This one has been lovely to dip into. It’s had to be displaced, since my work-load mushroomed over the last couple of years, but I still lift it off the shelf and let the pages fall open occasionally… Maybe that’s how Edgar Allan Poe will work.

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