These are grouped according to genre (more or less), but they are not ranked. I’ve added some explanation for why you should love them, too.
My Holy Trinity of Great American Novels:
The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald – A great story is not diminished by its accessibility, and this is probably the “easiest,” finest book you could read in a few hours. It’s another story of pride, but one not of war with nature but with humans, and with love. Fitzgerald called genius the capability of holding two ideas in one’s head at once, and his novel tests that definition: our narrator, Nick, wonders if a man can be great when he is a fool. Can he win while losing? The novel praises persistence in the face of failure; it tells perfectly what Yeats deemed “the fascination of what’s difficult.”
Moby Dick – Herman Melville – This is the whole world in a book: all different kinds of men thrown together in a bucket into the sea. It’s the book of human hubris: Ahab’s (or Adam’s, really) belief that he can overcome the immensurate power of leviathan (or God, really). All the while Starbuck attempts to check a monomaniac with logic, winning the reader over if not the captain. A story of revenge, pride, and inevitability, told by an everyman who, we hope reflects us better than the does the captain. All the while Melville treats us to a love affair with the sea and the unreason it represents, a space behind our understanding, offering insights into the practicality and poetry of the long-lost art and war of whaling.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain – Can you make a perfect story out of rambling, periodically nonsensical episodes only loosely related, with an ending tacked on, all “told by an idiot” with its political commentary arriving several decades after the fact? Twain proved you could. It’s probably the most American book: the dialect, the deadpan, the deadbeat fathers and dreaming sons. It’s a slice of regionalism as well as an eternal morality tale about good and evil in a nation that continually confuses them. The book’s own ending (Tom Sawyer, part II) nearly undoes the force of the text, but it sticks with you anyway. A throwaway character in the middle of the novel, Colonel Sherburn, and his praiseworthy/revolting harangue toward society and its mobs, is the perfect random, complex figure to illustrate the book—and to detail Twain, America’s best writer.
Three Very Different, but Great, Fantasies:
The Divine Comedy – Dante Alighieri – The opening work of the triptych, Inferno, is the clear favorite, showing us a delicious view of the science of pain and punishment in Hades. But the upward movement of the whole trilogy is exhilarating: there is as much to fascinate in Purgatorio as in Hell. Paradiso is less interesting, due to our bias toward the seamier side, but it’s contemplative and beautiful in its own right. Throughout a brilliant story about the meaning of human action and belief, Dante weaves complicated ideas of justice and goodness. He produces a stark image of humanity, but a personal one. His ideas of justice and order stay with me. I just wish I had Virgil to show me the steps.
A Wrinkle in Time – Madeleine L’Engle – The perfect fantasy novel because it avoids every fantasy cliché and instead borrows the best of science fiction and the former genre. The result is a tight, clear, powerful image of a universe where making choices matters. I still feel a bit of terror creep over me when I reach the final chapters: it examines the darkness without living there. Its resolution doesn’t feel cheap. L’Engle packs so much power in an unassuming, young adult package—much like the protagonist, Meg, herself. Tangible darkness is overcome in the best way possible.
Something Wicked This Way Comes – Ray Bradbury – This shouldn’t be an unusual pick, but it is. It’s a terrific book, with a lot of its own Dante and Shakespeare in here (beyond just the title). Another great fantasy, but it’s a novel written essentially in lyric—something moving, beautiful, and haunting, that proves Bradbury’s mastery beyond simple genre fiction. This is his wonderful coming-of-age story, not just about two boys, but about a grown boy, a father who has aged too fast. Carnival and the gothic mix to produce a meditation on time that gives me goose bumps still.
Four Great Poets’ Legacies (I’m cheating and combining their actual books):
The Collected Poems of T. S. Eliot – Eliot has taught me almost everything I know about the science of poetry. Yet he still managed to infuse his works with heart. “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock” changed my entire perspective on what poetry was, and almost-singlehandedly changed the course of my life. “The Waste Land,” too, though I don’t care to read it anymore, has been my own Virgil, guiding me through the modernist mind—and it’s shown me a way out of that world, as well. Of the Four Quartets, “Burnt Norton” and “Little Gidding” are incredible, the latter makes me cry. It is a perfect meditation in the midst of war—what do we do and say and think and feel when we cannot do any of those things?
The Collected Poems of Robert Frost – Frost’s is a poetry of the people: he didn’t bend from his roots. Unlike the trees in “Birches,” whose bending tells us the truths of ourselves. I could put Frost’s poems on this list for this poem alone, a place where folk story and divine wisdom meet—it’s true what he decides, “One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.” “The Death of the Hired Man,” is the most moving dramatic poem I’ve read: the images of death and life are so stark, and the resultant wonder about what home is, what it means, moves me still. “The Oven Bird” sums up tidily the meaning of modernity, deciding what exactly we are to make of “a diminished thing.” “Mending Wall” and “The Road Not Taken,” among many others, are recommended though well-known. “After Apple-Picking” sees us right where we always are: with our ladders pointed “toward heavens till.”
The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens – A poet’s poet who remains obscure publicly though appropriately lauded among readers of poetry. His poetry is difficult if you wish to parse it perfectly, or believe poetry should make perfect sense. His play in sound and wit and light and color is seductive, though, so approach with care. Who knew and insurance executive could be both playful and philosophical, a pure lover of sound and word and mystery and humor, as he chased “the palm at the end of the mind.” Some essentials: “The Emperor of Ice-Cream,” (familiarity and estrangement in life and death) “Gubbinal” and “The Snow Man,” (the meaning of perspective), “Sunday Morning,” (how now are we to live?) “Of Modern Poetry,” (“The poem of the mind in the act of finding what will suffice), “The Man with the Blue Guitar,” (the impossibility of seeing things as they truly “are”), and “The Idea of Order at Key West” (the beauty possible in making the world in one’s own image). Stevens was the one who “sang beyond the genius of the sea.”
The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats – The greatest Irish writer is spellbinding, modernist, ancient, strange, true and familiar all at once. He offers both criticism and begrudging respect for his people, as well as coupling self-monumentalizing to self-mocking. He was a master of the lyric who never lost his artist’s eye, even with works depicting an ugly, ugly era. The French-adapted “When You are Old” makes me cry: it’s a beautiful, strange, not-quite-right love sonnet. More essentials: “Easter, 1916” (perhaps the best political poem ever written), “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” “Lapis Lazuli” (what art is, even if we don’t know what it is) “Among School Children,” “The Stolen Child” (gorgeous yesteryear), “Under Ben Bulben” (Yeats’s tombstone), “The Wild Swans at Coole” (art as art; life as change), “Sailing to Byzantium” (the overwhelming desire for beauty).
+ 1 Great Short Story – “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” – Flannery O’Connor is here so stark, so brutal, and yet she overlays her work with a biting sense of humor that remains charming! A short masterpiece, painted brightly to contrast with its darkness.
+ 1 Great Drama – Hamlet – William Shakespeare – I don’t care all that much for drama as a genre, but this is an ur-myth, an essential view of humanity (and its considerably better than Oedipus). Psychology in literature might as well begin here, and in the figure of Hamlet we all wait, and wait, for something to happen, all the while stewing in our rage.
Note to my literary friends: you can critique this list based on its generic nature, or because most of it fits neatly into a traditional canon. And it’s true—if others didn’t love these works first, I wouldn’t have found them to love, probably.
But their familiarity does not diminish their greatness. If you need texts from which to rebuild psychology, society, or art—these will help you get started, at least.