NY Times’s ‘Essential’ Alice Munro

The Essential Alice Munro

The only prerequisite for reading the Nobel laureate, a master of short stories, is: having lived. Here’s where to start.

By Ben Dolnick

Before I’d read Alice Munro — when my knowledge of her amounted to an oafish word cloud (“older woman,” “Canadian,” “short stories”) — I imagined that the experience of reading her books, if I ever bothered to, would be like listening to classical music on fancy headphones in a college library: civilized, subtle, probably sleep-inducing.

But then I actually read Munro, and she lifted off my headphones in order to whisper an insane, unforgettable piece of gossip about that anxiety-stricken T.A. over by the copy machine. It turns out that Alice Munro — Nobel laureate, Author Most Likely to Endure, object of universal writerly reverence and envy — is not just important, but fun. Her books don’t belong on a high shelf; they belong in the passenger seat of your car, in the tote bag you bring to the grocery store. She writes about penises that look “blunt and stupid, compared, say, to fingers and toes with their intelligent expressiveness”; old people who smell like rank flower water; the way that couples breaking up occasionally interrupt the solemn proceedings to have passionate sex.

The prerequisites for appreciating Vladimir Nabokov, for example, include an appreciation for cryptography, a rudimentary knowledge of chess and a passing familiarity with Pushkin. The prerequisites for reading Munro are: having lived.

Before her retirement in 2013, she wrote 14 short story collections (a couple of which may try to pass themselves off as novels — don’t believe them). Almost all her stories take place in rural Ontario and follow the general contours of her life: the childhood on a struggling farm; the chronically ill mother; the early, unsuccessful marriage; the romantic escapades and agonies. Read the full piece at the New York Times.

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