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Everyone needs to take a break once in a while, and reading a good short story can do exactly that. The best short stories transport us, make us realize what life is like for other people, and help us with our own empathy capacity. And during this period wrought with stress and perplexity about the future, reading is more important than ever.
Here, we’ve selected ten of the best short stories ever written. You may have read some of these stories already; others will be new and enlightening, full of fresh wit, humor and grace. Reading can be a form of meditation if you allow all other distractions to fade away and focus on the work in front of you; it may even leave you feeling happier afterward.
So put your phone down, settle in, and read a few of these stories. Many of these classic stories are free to read online, while others are available at The New Yorker.
1. “Sweetness,” by Toni Morrison
A prelude to the novel God Help The Child, Toni Morrison writes with an alarming ferocity about mothering her dark-skinned daughter with practicality and no love. She writes about Bride’s mother in a way that will have any parent nodding with reluctance at her ways of protection but also with love. A great read for those interested in racism, parenting, and history. If you really like it, read the book next, as Morrison is one of the greatest writers of our time.
You can read “Sweetness” at The New Yorker.
2. “The Daughters of the Moon,” by Italo Calvino
In this strange tale, the humans of Earth decide to throw away the moon. How will they accomplish this and what will happen next? In this strangely delicious tale, Italo Calvino leaves us holding our breath and awaiting the tense climax only he could write.
You can read “The Daughters of the Moon” at The New Yorker.
3. “In the Penal Colony,” by Frans Kafka
In this chilling tale by the great Franz Kafka, (surely you read “The Metamorphosis” in high school) a man known only as the Traveler arrives at a foreign penal colony to discover a machine that inscribes the crimes onto the bodies of the prisoners. Waiting to be executed, the prisoners are marked this way until their day arrives. In this story, you will shudder and read with rapt abandon until the very end.
You can read “In the Penal Colony” on your Kindle for $1.
4. “A Good Man Is Hard To Find,” by Flannery O’Connor
A controversial story to this day, O’Connor has written a tale about a family taking a trip to Tennessee with their grandmother, who insists on sharing stories of her youth and saying how good it used to be. Her character is the crux of the story, and in the end, will you be glad for what’s happened to her or not? Read this classic short story if you’re interested in shocking twists about human nature.
5. “The Lottery,” by Shirley Jackson
If you’re interested in Post-War American fiction, or just love a good page-turner, this short story is a must-read. Shirley Jackson is the author of the classic horror novel The Haunting of Hill House and the subject of a new Hulu biopic, but this story helped launch her career upon its publication in 1948. Surely one of the best short stories in The New Yorker of all time, “The Lottery” leaves no innocents. What happens when an entire town must decide the fate of one of their own?
You can read “The Lottery” online at The New Yorker.
6. “Color and Light,” by Sally Rooney
An Irish writer of great acclaim, Sally Rooney is back with an ethereal, breathless tale of two brothers who both know the same woman in different ways. Written with sparse clarity, Rooney has a knack for bringing out our darkest secrets, the ones we thought no one would ever know. If you’re a fan of her two novels, you’ll enjoy this story.
You can read “Color and Light” online at The New Yorker.
7. “Referential,” by Lorrie Moore
Almost any story written by Lorrie Moore is startling dark, hysterical, and beautiful, and “Referential” is no different. In this story, the mother of a young boy in a psychiatric hospital struggles to find a suitable birthday present for him while her lover, the absent Pete, struggles to stay with her. Told with an acerbic wit, Moore shows us who we really are underneath the disguises of normal life.
You can also read “Referential” at The New Yorker.
8. “The Last Question,” by Isaac Asimov
Isaac Asimov was one of the few authors to appear twice on our list of the best science fiction novels of all time, but he was also a master of the short story. Perhaps the best science fiction story ever published, Asimov writes in “The Last Question” about a series of AI computers called the Multivac and their existential relationship with the human beings of Earth. The humans all ask the computer the same question: “How can we reverse the force of entropy to stop the world from falling apart?” As we follow different characters in different time periods asking this question about the future, the story forces you to wonder about the fate of our own world.
9. “A Guy Walks Into a Bar,” by Simon Rich
A new take on an old joke, former Saturday Night Live writer and humorist Simon Rich writes a hilarious story about a guy who walks into a bar, a 12-inch pianist, and a magical genie who’s hard of hearing. Told with sparse, funny prose, Rich goes deeper into the old joke to expose the reality of what we all really want in life. From start to finish, this short story is a delight to read.
You can read “A Guy Walks Into a Bar” online at, where else, The New Yorker.
10. “The Man in Xinjiang,” by Ottessa Moshfeh
A disturbing infatuation conflicts a man of questionable morals as he stalks an internet cafe in pursuit of the young woman behind the counter. As he progresses with his love interest he finds her phone number and begins sending anonymous messages and even convinces her to meet him. A writer of dark humor and even darker stories, Ottessa Moshfeh hit the literary scene in 2014 with her novella McGlue. This short story is just as disturbing and will put you on edge, surely the mind space you need right now in spite of all the stress outside.
Read “The Man in Xinjiang” at The New Yorker.