The 35 Most Iconic Short Stories of All Time
The best short stories are indisputable proof that good things come in small packages! These powerful tales will stay with you long after you've finished them.
Our editors and experts handpick every product we feature. We may earn a commission from your purchases.
The best short stories for all types of readers
As someone lucky enough to read for at least an hour most days, I love nothing more than tackling a great big stack of the year’s best books. It’s pure joy to immerse myself in a novel that takes a few days to digest. But what about those busy weeks when I don’t have the time or brainpower for a full-length story? That’s when short books or the best short stories swoop in to satisfy my love for reading.
Short stories are the perfect bite-sized literary treat. Through the magic of voice and storytelling, they capture your heart and don’t let go. If you’re looking for a few of the best short story collections to add to your bookshelf, look no further. We’ve got book recommendations for the best short stories you’ll ever read.
Join the free Reader’s Digest Book Club for great reads, monthly discussions, author Q&As and a community of book lovers.
The Joy of Funerals by Alix Strauss
This year marks the 20th anniversary of The Joy of Funerals, with a fitting anniversary edition out in October. The collection includes nine stories of women willing to do almost anything to fill their yawning voids of loneliness. Though each story can stand alone, the book is anchored by a character named Nina—a lonely single woman who goes to funerals to try to meet people. Good short story collections come and go, but Strauss’s book has remained a fan favorite for its exploration of all that we humans have in common: a desire for connection. This book is a classic for good reason.
Looking for your next great book? Read four of today’s bestselling novels in the time it takes to read one with Fiction Favorites!
Naked in the Rideshare by Rebecca Shaw and Ben Kronengold
The two youngest-ever comedy writers for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon put their heads together to co-author Naked in the Rideshare: Stories of Gross Miscalculations. The result? Laugh-out-loud short stories and essays so ridiculous, absurd and irrelevant that they’ve caught the attention of actors-slash-executive-producers Will Ferrell and Ryan Reynolds. Yes, that’s your hint that tales from the recently released book are slated to be turned into two TV series, so snap up a copy and read these original short stories before they’re adapted for the screen.
Table for Two by Amor Towles
Short on time but long on love for bestselling books like Rules of Civility and A Gentleman in Moscow? You’re in luck, because author Amor Towles will come out with this short story collection in April 2024. Now is the perfect time to preorder Table for Two. The collection includes six short stories set in New York City and a novella set in Hollywood during its golden age. Themes include chance encounters, modern marriages and the everyday dramas that unfold in the shadow of America’s iconic, stylish cities.
Cravings by Garnett Kilberg Cohen
Garnett Kilberg Cohen opens Cravings with a story called “Hors d’oeuvres” and ends it with “Feast.” Each tale digs into a character’s literal or metaphorical craving. In one, a woman inexplicably craves the food that also sparks memories of a tragic moment. In another, a character’s deep, forbidden craving becomes her downfall. This collection of deeply human stories, which came out in October 2023, will stick to your heart, not your ribs, but that doesn’t make it any less satisfying. Once you’ve finished this one, check out the most anticipated books of the year.
Out There Screaming, edited by Jordan Peele and John Joseph Adams
For fans of Jordan Peele’s whip-smart films Get Out and Nope, this 2023 collection—fully titled Out There Screaming: An Anthology of New Black Horror—offers a hair-raising exploration of both the natural and supernatural horrors that haunt Black Americans. Contributing writers include Tananarive Due, Nnedi Okorafor, N.K. Jemisin and Rebecca Roanhorse. According to The Guardian, “Every piece is strong and memorable, making this not only likely to be the best anthology of the year but one for the ages.” If Out There Screaming whets your appetite for more horror, don’t miss the best horror books of all time.
Never Whistle at Night, edited by Shane Hawk and Theodore C. Van Alst Jr.
Many Indigenous legends and lore warn against whistling at night, which is said to summon various forms of evil. A perfect read for spooky season, this 2023 collection includes Indigenous-inspired tales that summon spirits, curses and supernatural creatures that’ll satisfy any horror aficionado proclivities. Never Whistle at Night runs the gamut of horror, from quietly chilling stories to gripping encounters of grisly things that bump in the night.
The Goth House Experiment by SJ Sindu
SJ Sindu’s writing is known to be subversive, evocative and highly original—yet still grounded enough to draw out recognition and empathy from everyday readers. Stories in The Goth House Experiment, published in October 2023, span a variety of book genres and tackle everything from class to gender to LGBTQ+ identity. Reviewers have recommended it to readers who loved Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties.
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
Tim O’Brien’s modern classic centers on the Vietnam War, but these are not your traditional war stories. The author, who based this 1990 book on his own service in Vietnam, along with its aftermath, not only chronicles the war in these related short stories but also pulls back the curtain on the very act of storytelling and the impossibility of ever capturing the full truth. As the narrator says, “Often the crazy stuff is true and the normal stuff isn’t.” This deeply moving, profoundly thought-provoking book continues to speak to all generations of readers. Check out our curated list of the best historical novels for some fictional war stories.
Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro
Alice Munro is perhaps the most celebrated living writer of short stories, having won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2013. Her stories (in more than a dozen collections, including Too Much Happiness) are mostly set in her native Ontario. She explores the complexities and subtleties of interpersonal relations in precise, plainspoken language. Come prepared for surprises.
The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw
Published in 2020, Deesha Philyaw’s dazzling debut racked up staggering accolades for good reason. She invites us into the lives of Black Southern women in a way that is intimate, tender and deeply engaging. Here is how she opens: “Eula books the suite in Clarksville, two towns over. I bring the food. This year it’s sushi for me and cold cuts and potato salad for her.” And with that, you’re in the door. If you’re interested in reading more books by Black authors, this collection is a good starter.
Whatever Happens, Probably Will by John W. MacIlroy
This 2022 short story collection from John W. MacIlroy includes 18 literary fiction pieces in a mere 200 pages. They’re bite-sized, sure, but they’re no match for the shortest famous story of all time: Ernest Hemingway’s six-word memoir. All together, MacIlroy’s stories detail moments—big and small—that signal a change in some way. Some are stories of quiet love. Others are portraits of grief or strange, quirky inner lives. Crack open this spine “prepared to feel everything,” wrote reviewer Elizabeth Robin in Lowcountry Weekly. All the feels, indeed.
Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
Carmen Maria Machado burst onto the scene in 2017 with stories that blend in elements of science fiction while exploring body image, love, sexuality and violence. She is fearless when it comes to topics ranging from bariatric surgery (and the ghost of a former fat self) to prom dresses with awful secrets woven into the fabric. A bracing and necessary collection, Her Body and Other Parties was a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction.
Black Light by Kimberly King Parsons
Kimberly King Parsons’s stories have a heart as big as Texas, which is where she hails from. You’ll love her for her pitch-perfect sentence-making and for her sometimes messed-up but always compelling characters. For instance: “When I start dating Tim, an almost-doctor, all the sick, broken people in the world begin to glow.” If you like short stories with a side of humor, pick up Parsons’s funny book, which came out in 2019.
The Coast of Chicago by Stuart Dybek
Stuart Dybek is one of the great chroniclers of the Windy City—in particular, the Eastern European immigrant South Side. These spare, grittily exquisite stories waste not a word: “Tonight, a steady drizzle, streetlights smoldering in fog like funnels of light collecting rain.” Dybek’s masterpiece, which published in 1990, has been rightly compared to James Joyce’s Dubliners and Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio.
Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges
Argentinian genius Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986) wrote some of the most mind-bending and best short stories of all time. For instance, “The Library of Babel” (written long before the age of online algorithms and artificial intelligence) centers on an imaginary library containing every book that was or ever could be written by recombining the alphabet. If you like fantasy novels or stories as twisty as an M.C. Escher drawing, the 1962 masterpiece Labyrinths is for you.
Short, edited by Alan Ziegler
Short has a nice long subtitle: An International Anthology of Five Centuries of Short-Short Stories, Prose Poems, Brief Essays, and Other Short Prose Forms. Between these covers, you’ll find blink-length works ranging from classic masters (Michel de Montaigne, William Blake, Franz Kafka, Clarice Lispector, Gertrude Stein and Italo Calvino) to cutting-edge contemporary writers (Lydia Davis, Dave Eggers and Joy Harjo). The hundreds of stories living on the pages of this 2014 book come from writers in 24 Western countries, making this a creative and diverse collection.
Acts of God by Ellen Gilchrist
If you like your fiction Southern—or if you just like it flawlessly precise—dive into National Book Award winner Ellen Gilchrist’s 2014 short story collection. Nine years in the making, it’s described by its author as “a book of praise and wonder.” She adds, “When we are young, we are too self-serving and ambitious to look around and know how marvelous our fellow men and women and children truly are.”
Need more incentive to pick up Acts of God? Here’s a sample: “The tornado struck in the middle of the night. It swept across an eight-block stretch of the small town of Adkins, Arkansas, and leveled dozens of houses. At 10 the next morning, four teenagers from Fayetteville, Arkansas, First Methodist Church Youth Group left Fayetteville and headed south and east to Adkins to see if they could help.”
The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor
Long considered among the best short story writers ever, Flannery O’Connor published just two collections. Many consider the titular story, A Good Man Is Hard to Find, to be the best short story of all time. O’Connor died in 1964 at the age of 39, but her unsettling explorations of the Deep South (sometimes classified as Southern Gothic) remain must-reads. This complete volume, which won the National Book Award in 1972, includes both of her collections and 12 additional stories—truly, some of the all-time best short stories in one bound collection. If you’re a short story lover, this absolutely deserves a place on your TBR list.
Tenth of December by George Saunders
Short story writer, novelist, essayist and writing teacher George Saunders is widely acclaimed for the breadth and audacity of his work. His stories—at times bordering on sci-fi or the surreal—are strange but emotionally true. Take this excerpt from his 2013 collection, Tenth of December: “Why was it, she sometimes wondered, that in dreams we can’t do the simple things? Like a crying puppy is standing on some broken glass and you want to pick it up and brush the shards off its pads but you can’t because you’re balancing a ball on your head.”
Bloodchild and Other Stories by Octavia Butler
Octavia Butler (1947–2006) was the first Black woman to win accolades in science fiction, not only blazing a trail for many others but also—as many of the best short stories do—transcending strict definitions of genre. She introduces extraterrestrials as a way of making us think more deeply about ourselves and envisions a future we want to preclude. If your goal is to read more books this year, Butler’s 1995 collection, Bloodchild and Other Stories, belongs on your reading list.
The Collected Stories of Diane Williams by Diane Williams
Diane Williams is among the most innovative writers alive today. These extremely short pieces, published in 2018, fall somewhere between fierce poetry and story. They’re neither plotted nor linear; instead, you feel as if you’ve walked into a woman’s inner, astonishing life. Williams’s style has been described as “erudite, elegant and stubbornly experimental,” but don’t let that intimidate you. Whatever bypasses the mind goes straight to the heart.
Enormous Changes at the Last Minute by Grace Paley
Grace Paley’s stories about being a wife, ex-wife, mother, daughter and friend in New York City in the ’50s and ’60s are bursting with life. With her distinctive voice, Paley (1922–2007) takes a seemingly ordinary event and turns it into art, and her insights are razor-sharp: “… it is like a long hopeless homesickness my missing those young days. To me they’re like my own place that I have gone away from forever, and I have lived all the time since among great pleasures but in a foreign town.”
Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
Jhumpa Lahiri’s beautiful stories move from Boston to Bombay and center on intergenerational clashes in Indian immigrant families. The secrets and longings of her characters are powerfully real. Starting with the very first sentence of Unaccustomed Earth, she creates an empathetic engagement: “After her mother’s death, Ruma’s father retired from the pharmaceutical company where he had worked for many decades and began traveling in Europe, a continent he’d never seen.”
Pure Hollywood and Other Stories by Christine Schutt
In Pure Hollywood, Christine Schutt’s style is masterful and distinctive as she looks deep into the hidden corners of relationships between mothers and daughters, sisters, and couples. “Whatever your literary comfort zone is, the chances are Christine Schutt is outside it,” said The Guardian. The discomfort in these, some of the best short stories, is more than worth it.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver
The late Raymond Carver (1938–1988) was a master of pared-down stories about working-class people. Case in point: What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. A tale titled “Why Don’t You Dance?” begins: “In the kitchen, he poured another drink and looked at the bedroom suite in his front yard. The mattress was stripped and the candy-striped sheets lay beside two pillows on the chiffonier. Except for that, things looked much the way they had in the bedroom—nightstand and reading lamp on his side of the bed, nightstand and reading lamp on her side.” Wildly popular in the 1980s, these less-is-more narratives influenced a generation of writers.
Five-Carat Soul by James McBride
Bestselling memoirist and novelist (his recent The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store was named the best book of 2023) James McBride has his manifest talents on display here in miniature, in a collection of funny and moving tales. Many are set in the inner city; the final piece takes place at an imaginary zoo. McBride looks at race relations and the meaning of masculinity with both humor and honesty.
Bark by Lorrie Moore
The whip-smart, wisecracking stories in Lorrie Moore’s Bark carry an afterburn, as all the best short stories do. Through beautifully observed characters, she reveals the anxieties, longings and conflicting impulses we try to hide from ourselves. A sample: “Ira had been divorced six months and still couldn’t get his wedding ring off. His finger swelled doughily around it—a combination of frustrated desire, unmitigated remorse, and misdirected ambition, he said to his friends.”
Stay Awake by Dan Chaon
You might know Dan Chaon for his fiction—American road-trip thriller Sleepwalk or chilling literary suspense masterpiece Ill Will. But before his novels, Chaon wrote this compelling collection, which might indeed keep you up at night, haunted. In it, Chaon writes astute, suspenseful stories about people whose struggles might be easily overlooked: a young widower, a boy with night terrors, a foster child and more.
Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger
No roundup of best short stories would be complete without this poignant collection. Most everyone knows J.D. Salinger (1919–2010) as the generation-defining author of The Catcher in the Rye, a YA novel most of us read in high school. But each of these nine stories is a gem. “For Esme with Love and Squalor,” about a sergeant’s meeting with a young girl during World War II, will break your heart.
Orange World and Other Stories by Karen Russell
One of the brightest talents of the 21st century, Karen Russell fills her fantastical tales with wit and imagination. In her third collection, Orange World, you’ll find ghosts and zombies, along with achingly real people. As one character says in a postnatal group, “My name is Halimah. I had a C-section, and I feel like a library where they misshelved all the books.” You’re in for an adventure of the best kind.
A River Runs Through It and Other Stories by Norman Maclean
The title story in A River Runs Through It and Other Stories is something closer to a novella, and it’s more than worth the price of admission. Norman Maclean (1902–1990) turned to writing only after retirement, basing this semi-autobiographical story on his youth in Montana and his relationship with his brother, Paul, who struggled with addiction. “Now nearly all those I loved and did not understand when I was young are dead, but I still reach out to them,” he writes. Robert Redford turned the novel into a movie—but (you guessed it) the book is better.
Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories by Sandra Cisneros
Sandra Cisneros is best known for her bestselling novel The House on Mango Street, a modern classic about a young Mexican American girl coming of age in Chicago. That novel is told in short vignettes, so the transition to short stories seems natural. In Woman Hollering Creek, the beloved author writes about women’s lives on both sides of the Mexican border.
The Mountain by Paul Yoon
The Mountain‘s six quietly haunting stories span the globe and center on people who’ve been dealt losses through war, poverty or displacement. Each character—a landmine worker, a nurse and a factory worker—long for connection, for a place where they belong. Their particularities make these stories immersive, while the underlying emotions are universal. Want a totally different yet equally satisfying experience? Pick up a nonfiction book next.
The Ghosts of Other Immigrants by Maija Mäkinen
Some days, it feels like the world is getting smaller. Technology helps us communicate with far-flung family members at lightning speed. Airplanes shuttle hundreds of thousands of people between continents every day. But then, of course, there are times when the world feels too big—especially when you’re missing a faraway home. In Maija Mäkinen’s debut short story collection, the author explores the stories of immigrants. Immigrants who are missing family and friends. Immigrants grappling with the loss of mother tongues. Immigrants craving comfort food that’s tricky to make in a supermarket full of foreign ingredients. In beautiful, lyrical sentences, she captures what it means to be yourself in a new place.
Dearborn by Ghassan Zeineddine
For readers who are not part of the Arab American community, Dearborn offers a charming, eye-opening look at the identities, generational conflicts, humor and heart of their fellow Americans. And for Arab Americans, Dearborn might well feel like coming home. Omar El Akkad, author of Such Strange Paradise, praises the 10 tragicomic stories for capturing “a vital, underspoken aspect of the Arab American experience, that sense of being not quite from the place you love and not quite loved by the place you’re from.”
Additional reporting by Dawn Raffel.
Get Reader’s Digest’s Read Up newsletter for more books, humor, cleaning, travel, tech and fun facts all week long.
- Lowcountry Weekly: “Be Prepared to Feel Everything”