“Tenth of December,” George Saunders
This is the title story from the collection that The New York Times called “The Best Book You’ll Read This Year.” It’s also brilliant, obviously, a coming of age story cut two ways, about life and death and monsters and men. And hey, you can also read nine other stories by Saunders online for free. Weekend: planned.
“The Half-Skinned Steer,” E. Annie Proulx
As in so many of Proulx’s stories, this one slaps man up against his environment — but also against his memory, his fate, the inevitability of death. This darkly funny, chilly tale will dig around inside you until spring.
“The Library of Babel,” Jorge Luis Borges
If you’re reading this list, it’s probably a no-brainer that you’d be interested in a story about an infinite library. It’s also the story to choose if you only have ten minutes — a mini triumph by an undisputed master of the form.
“In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried,” Amy Hempel
Here’s another major classic, which also happens to be the first story Amy Hempel ever wrote (how does the first story you ever wrote stack up?), for a writing class prompt asking for a story about “the thing you will never live down.” Funny, tragic, perfectly minimalist. What more could you ask for?
“Spring in Fialta,” Vladimir Nabokov
“Spring in Fialta” may be Nabokov’s most anthologized story, and for good reason — every sentence blooms with a wistful beauty, every scene will leave you staring out across the water.
“Mirrorball,” Mary Gaitskill
This isn’t our very favorite story of Gaitskill’s — that dubious distinction probably goes to “A Romantic Weekend,” but don’t hold us to it — but the thing is, in our estimation, anything the woman writes is head and shoulders over anything just about anyone else writes. This one is full of lip-smacking language, dark corners, and all the strangeness that comes to pass when you accidentally lose your soul.
“The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis,” Karen Russell
Here’s another short story that was only recently released as part of a collection, to great acclaim. This story is majorly unsettling, a constant whispering in your ear, like all the legends about the woods behind your house you don’t believe but can’t quite shake.
“Catskin,” Kelly Link
Almost every story we’ve ever read by Link is a jewel. Luckily, most of Magic for Beginners is available as a free download, so once you’ve soaked up this bit of magic, you can rest assured that there is much, much more to be had.
“Cathay,” Steven Millhauser
If you, like one very chastened and regretful literary editor we know, pointedly ignored Steven Millhauser for years after hating Martin Dressler in school, we have news for you. His short stories are incredible. We know this now. This one is beautiful, as perfectly constructed and balanced as a magician’s pocket watch.
“Emergency,” Denis Johnson
You’ve probably read this one already, but if not, drop everything and do it now (don’t worry, it’s short). Brutal, beautiful, liable to leave you thinking about it for days, or years. Be warned: the copy linked to above is rather disjointed, so you may want to print out and rearrange. You can also listen to the audio file (with commentary by Tobias Wolff). If you’re a New Yorker subscriber, you can read a cleaner version here.