Dubliners by James Joyce (Dover, $2). This collection's final story, "The Dead," is usually agreed to be Joyce's best. Why do writers love it? In part because of the sheer brilliance of the language in the ending's epiphany, which is utterly unparaphrasable.
An Evening Performance by George Garrett (out of print). The title story from this collection by the prolific, intelligent, funny George Garrett lures us into a fairy tale with serious implications. The conclusion soars to simultaneously lyrical, yet humanely lowered, heights, and proves to us how much we need to believe in magic.
The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams (New Directions, $12). A play in which the author tries to escape the chains that bind him by splitting himself into versions of conventional maleness: the handsome, heterosexual ideal (but not quite); the no-good irresponsible Absent Man (who wouldn't get outta here?); and the brother, Tom, who yearns for "freedom" from irrational female hysteria (which can also be read as a projection of the sexually conflicted male's fears).
The Time of Illusion by Jonathan Schell (Vintage, $15). One of the best books written about the reign of Nixon. Schell's intelligence and insight seem effortless: "When the sleuth and the criminal are united in one person, as they were in the person of the president during the Watergate cover-up, one is presented with the spectacle of a man following his own footsteps in circles while taking care never to discover where they lead."
In Dreams Begin Responsibilities by Delmore Schwartz (New Directions, $15). A young man gets to watch a movie about the courtship of his parents at a time when he already knows what their future will hold. Out of context, his thoughts on their future might just seem high-strung. But in context, they're among the most startling thoughts in the modern short story.
Not-Knowing by Donald Barthelme (Counterpoint, $16) A somewhat abashed sensualist who could be very, very skeptical, Barthelme was a brilliant thinker — probing, with the tool of words, for the meaning of visual things. He approached the world through all his senses.