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The Best Short Stories to Read Online for Free

Plus, download a free copy of "The Yellow Wallpaper."

A good short story is a thing of beauty. Short story authors must be concise and make every word count to deliver a tale that captivates readers from the first few sentences, as opposed to the first few chapters. It’s a difficult task, but when done correctly, a short story is a powerful thing. 

Plus, short stories are also an excellent way to check out an author before committing to one of their novels, and perfect for reading on your phone or when you only have 20 minutes to spare on your commute. Below, we’ve rounded up ten of the best short stories to read online for free. If you have a few minutes, you can get lost in a whole other world. 

Related: Short Story Collections That Belong on Every Novel-Reader’s Shelf

Note: Stories marked with an asterisk are available for free from The New Yorker. If you do not have a subscription, you will only be able to view a limited number of articles each month. 

"The Library of Babel"

by Jorge Luis Borges

The Library of Babel illustration by Erik Desmarizieres
  • Photo Credit: An illustration by Erik Desmazières for “The Library of Babel,” by Jorge Luis Borges

In this short story, one of the greatest masters of magical realism has imagined a library that contains endless 410-page books with every possible permutation of 25 basic characters (22 letters, period, comma, and space). Of course, most of the books are gibberish—but among them must be every coherent book ever written. 

This (along with the possibility that some of the seemingly-gibberish books may be masterpieces if translated in other languages) drives the librarians who are tasked with organizing the collection to the point of insanity. 

Read it here.

Related: 8 Short Story Books to Celebrate Jorge Luis Borges

"The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas"

by Ursula K. Le Guin

Science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin won the Hugo award in 1974 for this short story about a dystopian society, the city of Omelas. The story begins by describing what seems like a blissful community—but, naturally, there’s a twist. 

Read it here.

Related: 9 Essential Ursula K. Le Guin Books

"The Veldt"

By Ray Bradbury

This classic short story was written in 1950, but its focus on the dangers of technology make it seem as though it was written just last week. The Hadleys live in a HappyLife home that does everything from brush your teeth to rock you asleep. But its most impressive feature is the children’s nursery, which has incredible virtual reality capabilities. It reads your thoughts and conjures whatever you imagine—including an African grassland that may be a little too lifelike.

Read it here.

"The Lottery"

By Shirley Jackson

The Lottery by Shirley Jackson
  • Photo Credit: Miss Shari / Flickr

When Shirley Jackson first published this short story in The New Yorker, people were somewhat outraged. The magazine received hundreds of letters from readers who were aghast at the story’s ending and desperate to find out what it meant. If you haven’t read it, there’s no time like the present.

Read it here.*

"The Daughters of the Moon"

by Italo Calvino

“The moon is old, Qfwfq agreed, pitted with holes, worn out. Rolling naked through the skies, it erodes and loses its flesh like a bone that’s been gnawed.” Another magical realism master, Italian writer Italo Calvino penned this tale about consumerism in 1968. As usual, his prose is imaginative, humorous, and fascinating, and well worth reading.

Read it here.*

Related: Italo Calvino’s Life, Legacy and 9 Must-Read Books

"The Embassy of Cambodia"

By Zadie Smith

Technically a novella at 96 pages, Smith’s short story takes us into the life of Fatou, a woman who works as a domestic servant for the Derawals. The titular Embassy of Cambodia is located in north-west London, making this an excellent companion piece to Smith’s musical, engaging 2012 novel, NW.

Read it here.*

"Sea Oak"

By George Saunders

Glenn Close in the pilot for Sea Oak
  • Photo Credit: Glenn Close in the pilot for Amazon's "Sea Oak." Amazon has passed on the dark comedy.

A poor family lives in a housing project called Sea Oak. Initially, their situation is so bleak it verges on comic. When their Aunt Bernie dies and they are unable to even afford a proper funeral, instead burying her in a casket made of flimsy balsa wood. Then, the unthinkable happens—Aunt Bernie rises again, and she has a lot to say before she’s done rotting.

Read it here.*

"Hills Like White Elephants"

By Ernest Hemingway

Anyone who’s ever eavesdropped on a conversation between strangers will get a thrill out of Hemingway’s 1927 short story. The plot focuses on a man, known only as The American, and a woman, known as The Girl, and the enigmatic conversation they have at a train station in Spain. The two indirectly talk about an “operation” he wants her to have, but without more context clues, readers must make their own interpretations about what they’re really discussing.

Read it here.

"Eveline"

By James Joyce

Joyce is known for behemoth, controversial works like Ulysses, which clocks in at 730 pages, but he was also quite skilled at writing short stories. Featured in Dubliners, a collection of his short stories, “Eveline” is about a young woman wrestling with whether she should leave her childhood home, or keep a promise she made to her dying mother to look after it.

Read it here.

"The Yellow Wallpaper"

By Charlotte Perkins Gilman

charlotte perkins gilman, author of short stories to read, including The Yellow Wallpaper
  • Photo Credit: Charlotte Perkins Gilman, c. 1900.

First published in 1892, “The Yellow Wallpaper” is generally regarded as an important early work of feminist literature. The story is structured as a series of journal entries from a woman whose husband, a physician, has decided she needs a “rest cure” after experiencing “temporary nervous depression” after giving birth. 

In essence, this entails the couple staying in a colonial mansion, in a room with barred windows, scratched floors, and torn, yellowing wallpaper. As you may have guessed, the room doesn’t improve the narrator’s mental health. 

New subscribers to the Early Bird Books newsletter can download this short story for free!

Featured photo: Victoriano Izquierdo / Unsplash. Additional photos: Library of Babel: Penn State / Flickr (CC) ; The Lottery: Miss Shari / Flickr (CC) 

Published on 25 Dec 2019

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