1. "The Shadow Industry" - Peter Carey
Simply the best distillation of consumerism in English literature. It could also have been written in the form of a sestina. The last paragraph also makes it a masterpiece of post-modernity.
Also recommended by the same author: "A Schoolboy Prank" - Anybody who went to an all-boy's school will relate to it.
2. "The Garden Party" - Katherine Mansfield
An obvious choice that beats "The Prelude" and "At the Bay" by the same author because they're more novellas than short stories. What this story has to say about classism still rings true today. More importantly, what it has to say about the facade of civilisation and its tactical remoteness from death is still relevant.
And like all great literature, it offers more questions than answers, ending with the line: "Isn't life...?"
Also recommended by the same author: Among many others, "The Wind Blows" is a finely-tuned reverie. "Feuille D'Album" is also a masterclass in portraying a character without boring the reader with too much description and a very rare example of shifting viewpoints working well in a short story.
3. "The First Class Passenger" - Anton Chekhov
A reminder that society's obsession with celebrity is neither a recent nor uniquely Western phenomenon. It's about an intellectual lamenting his lack of fame or status to a stranger on a train, until he learns who that stranger is. It's also a nice little anecdote on how professors deal with the resentment of not having much influence outside their own citadels.
Also recommended by the same author: "The Devil and the Shoemaker" does something similar for money as "The First Class Passenger" does for fame.
4. "Little Louise Roque" - Guy de Maupassant
A suspenseful story about madness and murder. The picture it paints of repression in the ruling class illustrates why so many people in positions of great responsibility (judges, surgeons, etc...) end up developing psychological issues. And like "The Devil and the Shoemaker," it shows that the rich live lives of quiet desperation just like you and I.
Also recommended by the same author: "Mother Sauvage" is the most powerful non-combat story about war I have ever read.
5. "The Mysterious Stranger" - Mark Twain
Even though it's set in 16th century Austria, it gives early 20th century anthropocentrism a kick in the nuts. Admittedly, this might have been developed into a novel had Twain lived longer, and there is no consensus as to what the most faithful version of the shot story is, but it does more to take apart organised religion than the entire careers of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins put together.
Also recommended by the same author: "Luck" is about a complete idiot who achieves all kinds of success without knowing how little he deserves it.
6-10 to come next month.