(Editor’s note: this post was updated in August, 2021, with current links to all stories.) When I have no idea what to read, I find a bunch of free short stories online, save them onto the Pocket app, and read them as if I’ve compiled my own short story collection. Like a music playlist I create to match a mood, I create short story playlists to break a book slump, or to sample a bunch of different authors’ writing.
As to where to find great stories, The New Yorker stories are generally best, but require a subscription if you read too many in a month. I also like Narrative Magazine, which will ask you for an email, but their stories are free too. Tor of course has some great free stuff, and you can find most of the classics through Gutenberg. The stories on this list that are not from any of these publications, I found through simple Google searches. If I’m interested in an author, but don’t necessarily want to read a whole book, I look to see if they have any short fiction available that I can read first.
From this list, my favorites are Zadie Smith and Italo Calvino’s stories. I’d never read Zadie Smith, but after loving “The Embassy of Cambodia” I started On Beauty (a 500 page book) and I absolutely love it. Both stories satisfied a reading itch I needed scratched.
Here are a few of my favorite free short stories you can read online right now.
“The Library of Babel” by Jorge Luis Borges
The world is a library that contains all the books that have ever been written, but most of them are indecipherable. Many people venture to the library to find the meaning of life. It reminded me of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld library.
“Perhaps my old age and fearfulness deceive me, but I suspect that the human species—the unique species—is about to be extinguished, but the Library will endure: illuminated, solitary, infinite, perfectly motionless, equipped with precious volumes, useless, incorruptible, secret.”
“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson
This used to be my favorite short story, and I might only think that because I read it when I was a freshman in high school and I remember being shocked by the ending. It’s always stayed with me.
“A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor
Another story with an ending that you won’t forget anytime soon. O’Connor was a master. If you’ve never read any of her work I would start here.
“In the Penal Colony” by Franz Kafka
It’s a chilling story. A man known as the Traveller is visiting a foreign penal colony where he is shown a special machine used to execute prisoners. The machine inscribes the prisoner’s crime onto their body until they die (kind of sounds familiar if you’ve read the fifth Harry Potter book). It takes twelve hours of torture before the prisoner dies. I told you it was chilling!
“The Devil in America” by Kai Ashante Wilson (Tor)
Kai Ashante Wilson has quite a talent. This ties present day police brutality towards African Americans to post-emancipation America and a family of freed slaves that are living with the Devil that followed them from Africa.
“The City Born Great” by N.K. Jemisin (Tor)
Cities, once they are old enough, must be born. New York City is ready to be born, and must be led into the world by a reluctant midwife.
“Spider the Artist” by Nnedi Okorafor (Lightspeed Magazine)
Okorafor is a wonderful storyteller, and if you’ve never read her books, this would be a great place to start. And if you like this short story, Binti: The Complete Trilogy was released in February!
“Exhalation” by Ted Chiang (Lightspeed Magazine)
Oh, you’ve never read Ted Chiang? Well, you must go out now and read this story and then read Stories of Your Life and Others and his new collection Exhalation: Stories, which comes out in May. I was shocked by how good and complex his writing was. I had no idea that the movie The Arrival was based on one of his short stories.
“The Daughters of the Moon” by Italo Calvino (The New Yorker)
I don’t know. It’s either Zadie Smith’s “The Embassy of Cambodia” or this story that is my favorite on the list… I can’t decide. I think it’s this story. A story about the people of Earth deciding to throw away the Moon. It’s a story of consumerism. Luckily, I own “The Complete Cosmicomics“, so I can continue reading Calvino’s magnificent short story collection.
“The Embassy of Cambodia” by Zadie Smith (The New Yorker)
After you read “The Devil in America” read this story and see if you can find the parallels. This was my first time reading Zadie Smith because I’d always heard mixed reviews, but if her longer fiction is anything like this short story, I’m in love. If you need help figuring out where to start with Zadie Smith’s books, check out our Reading Pathway guide to Zadie Smith.
“Sweetness” by Toni MOrrison (The New Yorker)
A prelude to Morrison’s book God Help the Child, this is the story of Bride’s mother, and her rationale for raising her daughter in a loveless home.
“Girls, At Play” by Celeste Ng (Bellevue Literary Review)
“This is how we play the game: pink means kissing; red means tongue. Green means up your shirt; blue means down his pants. Purple means in your mouth. Black means all the way.”
The first four sentences of this short story sent chills down my spine. A superbly told story of the extremes of girlhood and adolescence; the pressures girls face as they get older.
“On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning” by Haruki Murakami (Genius)
Love at first sight, if you believe love is predestined rather than a choice. Fated love, to me, no matter how hard my heart becomes, still seems ridiculously romantic. I haven’t read Murakami in a long time but now I’m itching to pick up one of his books (I really want to read 1Q84, but it’s soooo long!).
“Chechnya” by Anthony Marra (Narrative Magazine)
This was Anthony Marra’s first published short story, and works as an outline for his novel A Constellation of Vital Phenomenon. It’s the kind of story you read while holding your breath.
“The Fruit of My Woman” by Han Kang (Granta)
This story was written in 1997 before the publication of The Vegetarian. The two stories share many of the same themes, and it’s evident that this story served as a blueprint for the later book. In “The Fruit of My Woman” the wife is slowly turning into a tree (something that also comes up in The Vegetarian). The allusions to Daphne turning herself into a laurel tree to escape the advances of Apollo are hard to miss, but there’s no clear indication that Daphne was an actual influence on either story. Han Kang can do no wrong in my eyes.
“A Lady’s Maid” by Sarah Gailey (Barnes & Noble)
I love Sarah Gailey. This is a great introduction if you’re unfamiliar with her work. It’s Victorian London with androids—so much to love!
“A Bruise the Size and Shape of a Door Handle” by Daisy Johnson (American Short Fiction)
A hot and bothered story about a house falling in love with the girl who lives in the attic. I loved everything about this story. This is included in Johnson’s short story collection, Fen, and I can’t wait to get my hands on it. Also, the writing style reminded me of Samantha Hunt.
“Hollow” by Breece D’J Pancake (The Atlantic)
Breece D’J Pancake died when he was 26. He was from West Virginia, and I would label his writing “grit-lit”. This story was almost too gritty for me. He’s the kind of writer that other writers love. His short story collection has a blurb from Joyce Carol Oates.
Want more short stories? Check out our post on the 100 best short story collections!