Okay, last week was true confessions for me: the Important Works I had not read that I should read. (In case you’re wondering, both The Road and Beloved have many vocal fans…okay, Faulkner and Shakespeare, too. In fact, someone spoke up about each of my neglected books, adding to my guilt.)
To show that I’m not a dolt, here is my list of classic books that I have read that I feel immense passion for, that affected me deeply and profoundly, that I can’t imagine my life being the same without. All in my humble opinion, of course. And I think I’ll stick to pre-WWIish or so, though I may fudge a little bit.
1. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. I had purposefully skipped this one during college/grad school, afraid of TMI about whales, and yet that’s one of the many things I loved most the summer I spent reading it, whales and obsession and the post-modern tricks that were so post-modern that Melville used them even before modernity. One of the greatest books, ever. There’s probably a reason that this book came to mind first.
2. “The Wasteland” and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot. Yes, I’m already breaking my pre-WWI rule—even though Eliot said, “It's not wise to violate the rules until you know how to observe them.” I read “The Wasteland,” unsupervised, in a terrible American lit high school class where the teacher gave us a list of Great Writers and we picked through them independently through the semester while he read magazines at his desk, and I had no idea what was going on here, but I thought it was something important. When I got to college, I saw how right I was. I have a recording of Eliot reading “The Wasteland” that I often listen to when I fall asleep, and I feel that the words are imprinted on my soul. (Yes, yes, some people call this recording “melodramatic,” but I happen to love it.) Okay, throw in “The Hollow Men,” too, which even my high school brain could figure out.
3. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Does the inclusion of this book really need any explanation? I came to it for the romance in my early teens and read it now for the wicked humor and its dark reality of the Way Things Are (I mean, Were, because surely women’s lives are lived in a perfectly fair world now).
4. The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James. I read this first my freshman year of college and have a little notebook from the time with handwritten “Important Quotations” that is filled with lines from this book. When I reread it a couple of summers ago, I saw why: what a psychological study, what a depth of mind—examined, and examining. What frustrating sorrow. What an achievement.
5. “Leaves of Grass” by Walt Whitman. Another one that passed quickly through my head in that terrible high school lit class, then caught me in college, but was a deep and true revelation one perfect summer afternoon, read out loud while lying in a hammock under a tree.
6. The Adventures of Huck Finn by Mark Twain. Why do they let kids read this book? I loved Tom Sawyer and couldn’t wait for this “sequel” when I was ten. Oops. Reading it as an adult was, ahem, a little bit of a different experience. I’m not sure it’s possible to understand American without reading this book.
7. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. The landscape, the passion, the wails across the moors, the story of a story, the passion, the passion. Let’s not forget that people are always people first, even back in the olden days when everyone was wearing all that buttoned-up, stiff clothing, sitting around parlors drinking tea.
8. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. I read this for class at least three times in college, and it wasn’t until the last time that I sunk into its depths. Or, rather, its depths sunk into me. I think it makes for a great sequence to read Heart of Darkness, then watch “Apocalypse Now,” then reread Heart of Darkness then watch “Heart of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse,” about the making of the movie. Then reread Heart of Darkness.
9. “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold. Well…I hope the kids still read this in their survey courses (if that’s what they’re called), but I’m not sure it’s still considered the must-read it was back when I was in college. But what a potent message for the impressionable young writer, especially one who lived in a dorm room overlooking a lake, listening to the waves each night?
10. Toss-up: Anna Karenina, Middlemarch, Thomas Hardy, Ibsen, Chekhov! All works that were influential enough on me to make this list—yet none feels 100 percent deserving of its own entry the way the others do. Yet I ache at the thought of excluding any of them. Remember what Eliot said about rules?
11. I’m not sure Little Women by Louisa May Alcott is this type of classic, but I don’t think anyone can really understand women without reading this book. (Watching “Sex in the City” is NOT a substitute!) I still can’t forgive Amy for burning Jo’s manuscript, and it still annoys me that Jo was able to!
I know there are many, many books I haven’t included and might if I wrote this list on a different day. I know that I cheated with some on the WWI cut-off and not on others that would make this list with an expanded or different timeline. I know I’m supposed to have Shakespeare on this list or Homer. I know my list reflects my American background and schooling. But there is something bracing about winnowing, about pushing to think which books go on the shortest possible list, which classic books changed my life profoundly, making me who I am, which books would be the absolute last I would toss into the fire.