I should begin here with a list of disclaimers as long as the lists of books and authors themselves. One’s reaction to literature has a strong element of personal taste that’s beyond argument. The same is true for judgments of movies, art and music. I was reminded of this recently when dear friends posted an impassioned attack on a movie they had just watched which they thought failed on every count from script to performance. It was a movie that Rosellen and I loved. We just shrugged. There’s no accounting for taste.
Then there are the ever-present biases. My age, gender, race, religion, nationality and education all create filters through which my experience as a reader pass. I try to get beyond my Western bias, but it’s there, nonetheless. I haven’t read enough Asian, African or South American writers. I haven’t been able to keep up with the flood of worthy novels and short stories by younger writers or LGBTQ authors. As hard as I fight to ward off gender bias, I still haven’t done enough.
Therefore, I can only recommend the best of what I’ve actually read. It’s the responsibility of every reader of my list to seek out people very different from me and solicit from them their recommendations for great fiction reading. I hope their list would have some overlap with mine, some evidence of universality, but there’s sure to be a lot of divergence. So, please, no brickbats about what I’ve omitted or over-represented. I’m acknowledging the inevitability of those flaws. Despite them, I hope you’ll come away with some ideas about reading gaps you may want to fill. And please send us some of the authors and titles that you would add to mine.
Let me start with an infinitely expansible sampler list of writers who have played a big part in my reading life. Almost any title by them will enrich yours as well. Again, no particular order intended:
Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Isaac Babel, Chekhov, Proust, Dickens, Hemingway, Faulkner, Hardy, Toni Morrison, Flannery O’Connor, Updike, Zadie Smith, Fitzgerald, Bellow, Kingsolver, Phillip Roth, James Baldwin, Marquez, Kafka, Camus, Lawrence, Joyce, Gordimer, Thomas Powers, Grace Paley, Richard Powers. (Note: I started with that quartet of Russian authors because it was reading the Russians in my teens that really ignited my passion for serious literature. I hope they still have the power to do the same for some of you.)
It’s absolutely crazy to embark on such a list so I’m going to switch over to listing individual titles, most of them not by authors on the above list. I don’t think I have to tell people about War and Peace, Madame Bovary and Crime and Punishment. They’re essential reading, but you can find them on any list of Great Books that you can google. One of the few good things about the Covid lockdown was that it gave me the time to visit or revisit some of these classics, like Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. Here are some titles that you can bury yourself in with great reward. Some of them I’ll simply list; for others I’ll add a word of comment.
- Middlemarch by George Eliot – Rosellen has been telling me about this book since our graduate student days, but I avoided it till a few years ago – too old, too long, too much a “woman’s book.” Wrong on every count. So full of brilliant social observations about 19th century English life that I finally had to give up underlining the memorable passages. There were too many.
- Mrs. Bridge by Evan Connell – slender, but packed account of mid-20th century life in the Midwest. Rosellen’s favorite too.
- The Color Purple by Alice Walker
- A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess – a forerunner of all the recent dystopian novels about the breakdown of civilized society.
- A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith – growing up in my hometown at the start of the 20th century in a poor family with an alcoholic father. Way ahead of its time in portrayal of sexuality.
- Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro – narrated entirely by a butler in service to a wealthy British family of Nazi sympathizers.
- The Promise by Damon Galgut – one of my recent favorites. The story of a South African family struggling to break free from the constraints of apartheid.
- The Adventures of Kavalier and Klay by Michael Chabon – an incredibly energetic novel set in the world of the early comic book creators.
- Regeneration by Pat Barker – the first in a trilogy set during WWI.
- The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri – a novel about an Indian family dealing with the transition to life in America. You’ll also love her book of short stories called The Interpreter of Maladies.
- Sophie’s Choice by William Styron – the main character faces the impossible choice of which of her children will live and which will die at the hands of the Nazis.
- Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich – the entire body of her novels represent the best depiction so far of contemporary Native American life.
- The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga-an Indian man rises from poverty to a position of power in a cutthroat world.
- The Known World by Edward P. Jones – the author imagines a world of Black slave owners.
- The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead – the author turns a metaphor into the reality of real train line used as an escape route by runaway slaves (later made into an extraordinary and underappreciated TV streaming series.)
- The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night by Mark Haddon – the world seen through the eyes of a boy on the autism spectrum.
- Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison – If you were my student at Jones HS in Houston you may have read this with me. If not, it’s a must, arguably a virtual tie with Toni Morrison’s books for its depiction of the dilemmas and dangers of being Black.
- The Golden Notebooks by Doris Lessing – considered one of the early feminist novels. It focuses on one woman, an ex-communist in 1950s London.
- The Cairo Trilogy by Naghib Mahfouz – an extraordinary panorama of life in colonial Egypt. It won the author a Nobel Prize.
- Blindness by Jose Saramago – one of the most disturbing and fascinating books about the chaos that follows an outbreak of a plague of blindness.
- Olive Kittredge by Elizabeth Strout – the first of an ongoing series of books about a temperamental woman who teaches math in a small town in Maine. The portrait of the town that emerges is extraordinarily vivid.
- The Things they Carried by Tim O’Brien- one of my favorite books of all time. It’s a series of stories all revolving around the Vietnam War – those who fought in it and those who fled from it.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – the story of a Nigerian woman confronting the peculiar American take on race.
– So Long See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell – Rosellen wouldn’t forgive me if I omitted this one. This is a quiet, beautifully written story of a boy growing up in a small Illinois town where he is dealing with the painful early death of his mother.
– Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Stephen Millhauser. This very odd tale of a man who builds fanciful hotels that presage the virtual realities our AI people are spinning out these days.
- The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai – an epic account of the human toll of the Aids era, set right here in Chicago.
- Before and After and Civil Wars by Rosellen Brown – I have to end again with a nepotistic plug for these two books by my very own wife. I won’t even summarize them Just go get them.
Okay. Enough. The possibilities are endless and I’m going to be plagued by the multitudes of omissions. The list would be twice as long if I listed titles by the authors whose names I inscribed at the top of the list. You’ll have to research those yourselves. I can’t begin to express how much these books have enriched my life. Just pluck a few off the list and I’m sure they’ll do the same for you.