An afternoon’s reading - painting by Felix Milius (1843–1894) If you are new to the writings of Henry James you may well ask “Where do I begin?” – with some twenty novels (depending on how you count), 112 short stories (‘tales’) and an enormous amount of literary and art criticism and travel writing to choose from, it is indeed a daunting prospect. On top of this you may feel, as you are currently using the world wide web, that the electronic medium itself must be factored into the equation: do you want to read here or find a printed book?

My answer to these questions is that there’s no time like the present and it’s really quite easy to read online, particularly if you only have to read one short story. I have tried to provide helpful features such as ability to blank out the distracting menu or reverse the text display to light-on-dark. Also, if you allow my cascading style sheets to remove the links’ underlining and colouring to obtain an even text, it’s almost like reading a book. So why not start with one of the tales on this website? Try a really short one like Brooksmith, which dates from the middle of James’s life and takes an wry look at the lot of an ‘upstairs’ servant who has the misfortune to be intelligent – of course in the 21st century we have to make allowances for the fact that James was writing for an upper-middle class audience in the late 19th.

Alternatively you could start with Broken wings, which is also one of the shortest of the tales, about a painter and a novelist who each thought the other was too financially successful to be interested in marrying them. This tale has the advantage of the greater subtlety of James’s so-called ‘late style’, which is truly characteristic, but without your having to retain a complex web (sorry!) of allusions and symbolism across the length of a novel. Another short and rather satirical tale from the same period is Paste, which documents the disruption caused by a family heirloom which is better than it should be and suggests that a forebear was no better than they should have been.

If you are already familiar with ‘postmodern’ literature – that is, broadly, literature about itself and the act of reading, for example the work of Italo Calvino or Samuel Beckett – you might like to start with another late tale The story in it which poses and answers the question: what sort of adventure would make an interesting story.

Well, those are four different suggestions for short stories to tackle if you are completely new to James’s fiction. If and when you want to get to grips with something a bit longer, my suggestions are to try one of the humorous longer tales, either The birthplace, about the custodian of a well-known tourist attraction, or The papers, which still has lots to tell us about ‘being in the newspapers’.

Finally, when you want to move up to something of novel length, I cannot do better than recommend the novel of James’s which I read first, albeit I was indulging in a (printed) paperback: The spoils of Poynton.

If you want more information about Henry James, don’t forget that many scholarly web resources are listed on the Henry James scholar’s Guide to Web Sites.

Please feel free to contact me for a discussion about any of the tales I have recommended… I can’t promise always to reply immediately, as my ’net access is only from my workplace but I’ll try to get back to you when I have an evening I can stay late.