On Air
0:00
0:00
Open In Popup
MPR News

Short Story Month: Best short stories to read online for free

Share story

British novelist Zadie Smith
British author Zadie Smith spoke at The New Yorker Festival October 10, 2014 in New York City. Her short story "The Embassy of Cambodia" offers a taste of her style.
Bryan Bedder | Getty Images 2014

May is Short Story Month, a celebration of bite-size fiction. Fill your day with a tale or two.

"Short stories are tiny windows into other worlds and other minds and other dreams. They are journeys you can make to the far side of the universe and still be back in time for dinner." -Neil Gaiman

Sensational short stories to read online for free

"Symbols and Signs" by Vladimir Nabokov

Whether you love Nabokov or have never read him before, this story proves how much punch the Russian master can pack into just four pages. In the tale, a family wrestles with a bittersweet birthday and unexplained phone calls.

"The system of his delusions had been the subject of an elaborate paper in a scientific monthly, which the doctor at the sanitarium had given to them to read. But long before that, she and her husband had puzzled it out for themselves."

Reading time: 8 minutes

"Haunting Olivia" by Karen Russell

Russell is a short story wunderkind who swept onto the scene with her dark and magical collection "St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised as Wolves" in 2006. Her novel "Swamplandia" was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, though no book took home the prize that year. 

In "Haunting Olivia," two young brothers think they've discovered scuba-diving goggles that will allow them to see the dead.

"The diabolical goggles were designed for little girls. They are pink, with a floral snorkel attached to the side. They have scratchproof lenses and an adjustable band. Wallow says that we are going to use them to find our dead sister, Olivia."

Reading time: 20 minutes

"The Last Night of the World" by Ray Bradbury

Bradbury mastered dystopia before it became the latest literary trend. In this short and bittersweet piece, which he wrote for Esquire in 1951, Bradbury lets a simple conversation grow into something more.

"What would you do if you knew this was the last night of the world?" 

Reading time: 4 minutes

"A Good Man is Hard to Find" by Flannery O'Connor

O'Connor delivers an unsettling, satirical story of a family road trip gone horribly awry. When a grandmother tries to direct the family to her childhood home, she actually leads them right into the clutches of The Misfit, a dangerous character that will stick with you long after the last sentence.

"The next morning the grandmother was the first one in the car, ready to go. She had her big black valise that looked like the head of a hippopotamus in one corner, and underneath it she was hiding a basket with Pitty Sing, the cat, in it. She didn't intend for the cat to be left alone in the house for three days because he would miss her too much and she was afraid he might brush against one of her gas burners and accidentally asphyxiate himself."

Reading time: 22 minutes

"The Soul is Not a Smithy" by David Foster Wallace

"Infinite Jest," Wallace's best-known work of fiction, clocks in at 1,079 pages, complete with 388 endnotes. 

This short story delivers Wallace's wicked sense of humor and wild imagination in a much more convenient dose (though it's still the longest story on the list). In "Smithy," the narrator thinks back on a particular fateful day with a substitute teacher.

"The site of the original trauma was 4th grade Civics class, second period, at R. B. Hayes Primary School here in Columbus. A very long time ago now. The class had a required seating chart, and all of us had assigned desks, which were bolted to the floor in orderly rows. It was 1960, a time of fervent and somewhat unreflective patriotism."

Reading time: 45 minutes

"The Embassy of Cambodia" by Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith has earned accolades aplenty for her novels, which include "White Teeth," "On Beauty" and "NW." In this taste from a modern master, Smith examines the lives of immigrant workers in London in the shadow of mysterious goings-on behind the walls of the Cambodian embassy.

"Who would expect the Embassy of Cambodia? Nobody. Nobody could have expected it, or be expecting it. It's a surprise, to us all. The Embassy of Cambodia!"

Reading time: 26 minutes