I have to say, it was nearly impossible to compile this list of "essential" books because I have so many favorites it so many different categories. So, I've narrowed my list down to just short stories, in no particular order. I hope you enjoy and give them a chance!
Rock Springs by Richard Ford
Best known for his novel Independance Day, Richard Ford also composed some pretty great short stories and Rock Springs is about as raw and gritty as it gets. Set in the American West, readers are exposed to the lives of various different characters. Filled with loneliness, this collection of stories features hard-drinking men, domestic violence and the unsetteling innocence of a child watching his family evaporate, to name a few.
Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? by Raymond Carver
Carver's first collection of short stories propelled him into being one of the great American short story writers. Carver details the lives of everyday people, mostly couples, as they do.... well, daily things. Spying on their neighbors, gossiping, being unemployed and longing for a different life. While at the same time, nothing ever really seems to happen in his stories. There's no real ending. It's up to the reader to decide that.
Take, for example, my favorite story in this collection "The Father". Three sisters, a mother and grandmother sit around a new baby talking about the baby's various features. The father sits in the other room as the girls try to decide who the baby looks like but they can't determine if the baby looks like their daddy, or if anyone actually looks like daddy. It's a short 1 and half page story that ends with a movement by the father. " He had turned around in his chair and his face was white and withouth expression."
In Our Time by Ernest Hemingway
In short, the best collection of short stories ever written from the master of the short story.
If you happen to be familar with Hemingway because you were forced to read The Old Man and the Sea, then I highly encrouage you to give him another shot. Hemingway has the ability to pack a lot of imagery and emotion into stories that are generally rather short.
Written from the perspective of an erratic drug addict, Jesus' Son is a collection of stories loosely linked together by a common narrator. The stories give insight into drug addiction, loneliness, fear and death.
Laughable Loves by Milan Kundera
While not known much for his short stories, in Laughable Loves, Kundera presents us with 7 stories in the same style as his longer works. The stories mostly focus on relationsips and the humor, tragedy and regret that surround them.