People can argue all day about the greatest novels, but there is never enough discussion about short story collections. In honor of the first exceptional example of 2014 — Leaving the Sea by Ben Marcus — and the fact that The New Republicis publishing short fiction again, we were inspired to come up with this list of essential collections by masters of the form and up-and-comers alike. Some entries in this canon are anthologies of an author’s complete works, while others are individual books that are perfect on their own; either way, these 35 volumes are required reading.
Airships, Barry Hannah
If we were to build a Mount Rushmore of great southern writers, Barry Hannah’s face would be placed right alongside Faulkner and O’Connor. This 1978 collection, edited by Gordon Lish, is the perfect place to start if you want to experience Hannah’s sense of humor and storytelling at its finest. Just be prepared to get hooked.
Twilight of the Superheroes, Deborah Eisenberg
According to our calculations, there are just three to five true living masters of the short story, and Eisenberg is one of them. This, what many consider to be her most fully realized collection, shows off her ability to write about people making mistakes and getting screwed by fate who we not only sympathize with, but straight-up relate to.
Goodbye, Columbus, Philip Roth
Before Portnoy’s Complaint, Philip Roth was pissing people off with these stories about Hebrew school students challenging the idea of God and religion, complacent middle-class Jews, and more storylines about Jews doing things that Jews in 1959 considered “Bad for the Jews.”
Someday This Will Be Funny, Lynne Tillman
Tillman is one of those writers who other writers worship. While she can write novels and nonfiction with the best of them, this collection offers the best glimpse into the strange and brilliant mind of a true literary genius.
Anton Chekhov’s complete short stories
As you’ve probably heard by now from any literature teacher worth their salt, Chekhov set the bar for the short story. The list of perfect works is long, and the number of different editions compiling his stories is almost as sizable. So if you’re having a difficult time finding a book with everything, just go here.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Raymond Carver
The book that launched a million blog posts titled “What We Talk About…” (but don’t blame it for that, please), Raymond Carver’s 1981 book is one of the most important collections of the 20th century, complete with all the hard luck, bad relationships, and occasional death for which the author is known and, yes, loved.
Pretty Monsters, Kelly Link
Kelly Link once said, “I’m assuming I’m not the only writer out there who loves both [H.P.] Lovecraft and Lorrie Moore,” perfectly summing up her approach to writing: horror and fantasy with a twist of literary fiction. She is should be considered in the same universe as Stephen King, Peter Straub, and Neil Gaiman. Read all of her stuff, but start here and go backwards to her other books, Magic for Beginners and Stranger Things Happen.
The Complete Works of Isaac Babel, Isaac Babel
There’s the old guard of Russian greats — Tolstoy, Gogol, etc. — and then there’s Isaac Babel. His brand of odd, obviously obsessively crafted tales of life in Communist Russia stand up as some of the finest works the country produced before or after.
The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway, Ernest Hemingway
We know you’ve read all of Papa’s novels, but his stories that span from Michigan to “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” to Spain are even better.
Some readers equate reading Amy Hempel to having a religious experience. Her short, sparse tales go from choking sadness to black humor, and her most well-known work, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried,” is one of the ten short stories you must read before you can say you die. Get this collection, because it’s the best way to fully experience Hempel’s strange magic.
Battleborn, Claire Vaye Watkins
Watkins burst onto the scene in 2012 with this unforgettable collection of new Wild West tales that earned her comparisons to Cormac McCarthy, Annie Proulx, and Denis Johnson. Definitely one of the strongest debuts of the last decade, and an undeniable classic of our era.
Dubliners, James Joyce
There’s the Joyce of Ulysses, and there’s the more naturalistic Joyce of these tales. And while some of the Dubliners depicted in this collection show up in Joyce’s massive, intimidating masterpiece of a novel, these stories have a charm all their own.
Labyrinths, Jorge Luis Borges
You should read as much by this Argentinian master as you can, but know that he excelled in the short fiction form. Seek out the New Directions copy of this collection originally published in 1962 so you can read the William Gibson introduction, then prepare to have your mind stretched by mystical and philosophical tales like “The Library of Babel” and “The Garden of Forking Paths.”
Who Do You Think You Are?, Alice Munro
How do you pick just one book by the 2013 Nobel Prize winner who has made a career out of writing short fiction? A difficult task, no doubt, but this 1978 volume that uses one single character as the centerpiece and splinters out from there is a uniquely interesting — and successful — experiment in short fiction.
Selected Stories, Robert Walser
The popular way to describe Robert Walser is that he’s Franz Kafka with a sense of humor. The Swiss writer’s stories often merge into playful territory, but never lose their modernist edge. This collection, with its Susan Sontag introduction, is a great place to get acquainted with the madcap Walser.
This Is How You Lose Her, Junot Díaz
It’s hard not to love anything Junot Díaz writes, especially when he is examining love from every angle (falling in love, losing love, obsession that might be love, and every other way you can cast it) in his unique and undeniable voice.
The Collected Stories, Grace Paley
She blew everybody away with her debut, The Little Disturbances of Man, and never looked back. In stories drawn largely from personal experience, Paley wrote in a style that should have her mentioned in the same breath as the Philip Roths of the world (Roth published his debut the same year as Paley’s).
Going to Meet the Man, James Baldwin
It’s difficult to decide which literary medium Baldwin excelled in the most. Some might say his novels, while others would be more inclined to call him one of the 20th century’s best essayists. But to those people we reply that you shouldn’t ignore his short stories, and this 1965 collection stands as not only a great read, but a glimpse into the mind of one of our greatest thinkers in the middle of the Civil Rights era.
Like You’d Understand, Anyway, Jim Shepard
One trait that unites many of the entries on this list is an author’s ability to master a caustic sense of humor. The ability to look into the hearts of humans and find the good, the bad, the ugly, and the hilarious in just a few pages is a quality you hope for in a great short story. Jim Shepard is the better than any writer at doing that over and over again. The people in these stories aren’t arriving at some grand conclusion; they’re just living through the weirdness that is life.
Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri
Jhumpa Lahiri became a sensation with this book of stories about people from India attempting to adjust to new worlds and new cultures. Lahiri masterfully made the immigrant experience relatable to every reader, and hasn’t stopped mesmerizing us since.
Jesus’ Son, Denis Johnson
It’s difficult to call one book Denis Johnson’s “masterpiece,” because the guy has so many fine books, and has shown an ability to write everything from novels to novellas and plays to the point where some of us think he might be America’s greatest living writer. That said, many of us may have passed over Tree of Smoke or Train Dreams if not for these stunning stories about drug addicts that link together into something totally unforgettable.
Venus Drive, Sam Lipsyte
Sam Lipsyte burst onto the scene with this 2000 collection that challenged us not to feel bad about laughing at very creepy people and the often-unfortunate situations they find themselves in. Lipsyte has only gotten better since Venus Drive, but reading this collection shows you the progression of one of our funniest writers.
The Complete Stories, Flannery O’Connor
O’Connor is synonymous with Southern fiction, and that’s because of her short stories, famously marked by deeply flawed characters, the terrible things they do, and the feeling that, one way or another, we’re all going to have to answer to somebody or something when the book is finally closed.
The Collected Stories of Stefan Zweig, Stefan Zweig
Zweig may be the most important Austrian author of the 20th century. Pushkin Press put out this beautiful collection in 2013, filled with his timeless stories that all the examine the tiniest crevices of human nature.
Forty Stories, Donald Barthelme
Considered one of the forefathers of what we call “flash fiction,” Barthelme writes stories that rarely have plots and pose a challenge to some — but these 40 should be a good way of figuring out if his unique style is your cup of tea. If you like this, also check out its predecessor, Sixty Stories.
Bradbury Stories, Ray Bradbury
One of America’s foremost writers of fantasy, horror, and science fiction, Bradbury’s short bursts of fiction are just as great as his classic novels like Fahrenheit 451, with their often creepy depictions of the dark side of Small Town, USA.
The New York Stories of Edith Wharton, Edith Wharton
Edith Wharton perfectly chronicled a New York from a time long ago with a mix of nostalgia and cynicism in some of her most well-known novels. She did the same with her short stories, which are lovingly compiled in this collection.
The Stories of John Cheever, John Cheever
Any list of perfect short stories has to include John Cheever and his tales of gin-soaked WASPs, creepy New Yorkers, and broken dreams. He’s not just one of the best American short story writers; he’s one of the best short story writers, period.
The Elephant Vanishes, Haruki Murakami
Over 11 years of short stories, you get to experience the growth of Japan’s most popular living writer. The tales in The Elephant Vanishes are strange and heartfelt enough to suggest how Murakami progressed from these short stories to his epic 1Q84.
The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, Lydia Davis
It’s impossible to explain the greatness that is Lydia Davis, so why even attempt it? Just hand whoever’s curious this collection of her very, very short (sometimes less-than-one-page) stories that somehow cut to the center of the human experience in the space of a couple hundred words? There are other living masters, but Davis occupies a place that is totally her own.
Civilwarland in Bad Decline, George Saunders
While we’re still getting a whiff of the Tenth of December afterburn, now is the perfect time to revisit the first collection of twisted and hilarious stories that George Saunders gave to us. In this early classic, the author looks at the American Dream through a funhouse mirror.
AM/PM, Amelia Grey
There are few contemporary authors who are willing to experiment like Amelia Grey does in this weird and wonderful book of 120 stories that’s over so quickly you’ll want to revisit it as soon as you’ve finished.
The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen, Elizabeth Bowen
Bowen excelled at writing stories about things going wrong for people who are used to everything going right all the time. And while people might point you to this friend of the Bloomsbury Group’s novels, we think she was one of the best English short story writers of the 20th century.
Self-Help, Lorrie Moore
Lorrie Moore provides plenty of the old sweet and sour with this moving collection of stories that will pierce right to the middle of your gut. What Moore does better than any other contemporary short story writer, especially in Self-Help, is give us everything we need in one neatly packaged short story: humor, tenderness, vulnerability, and confusion, all of it perfectly balanced to tell the stories of people coming to terms with the unpredictable things that life hands them.
The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov, Vladimir Nabokov
We don’t talk enough about Nabokov’s short fiction because we’re so busy discussing his novels (namely, Lolita). That’s a shame, because he created fantastic short stories like “An Affair of Honor,” which showcased Nabokov’s dark sense of humor and ability to condense plots that would take a lesser writer hundreds of pages to flesh out.