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Sheila Heti's Top Ten List
1. The Picture of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde (1891). Wilde’s only novel offers a devastating portrait of the effects of evil and debauchery on a young aesthete in late-19th-century England. Combining elements of the Gothic horror novel and decadent French fiction, the book centers on a striking premise: As Dorian Gray sinks into a life of crime and gross sensuality, his body retains perfect youth and vigor while his recently painted portrait grows day by day into a hideous record of evil, which he must keep hidden from the world. First published as a serial story in the July 1890 issue of Lippincott's Monthly Magazine, the editors feared the story was indecent, and without Wilde's knowledge, deleted five hundred words before publication. Despite that censorship, it offended the moral sensibilities of British book reviewers, some of whom said that Oscar Wilde merited prosecution for violating the laws guarding the public morality.
2. Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles (1943). The only novel by avant-garde literary star Jane Bowles, the highly influential wife of legendary writer Paul Bowles, Two Serious Ladies is a modernist cult classic, mysterious, profound, anarchic, and funny, that follows two "respectable" women as they seek salvation and find debauchery. The two serious ladies, Christina Goering and Frieda Copperfield, are also strange, delightful birds who embark on separate quests that involve the rejection of the lives expected of them. Mrs. Copperfield visits Panama with her husband, where she finds intimate solace among the women who live and work in its brothels. Miss Goering becomes involved with various men. Alcohol, misfits and absurdist dialogue play central roles in this novel capped by an unforgettable ending.
3. The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis (1942). An amusing reversal of The Divine Comedy, this novel consists of letters from a senior devil (Screwtape) to his young nephew Wormword, teaching him how to tempt his first human “patient” to perdition. Lewis nicely balances theology and psychology, depicting hell as a bureaucracy with murderous office politics, and the loss of one’s soul as an imperceptible poisoning through chains of seemingly inconsequential sins.
4. The Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante. The four novels in this series, My Brilliant Friend (2012), The Story of a New Name (2013), Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (2014), and The Story of a Lost Child (2015), provide an epic view of the lifelong friendship between two smart, perceptive women. When they meet in first grade on the miserable outskirts of Naples during the 1950s, Elena, who will become a writer, is inspired by Lila: “We tore the words from each other’s mouth, creating an excitement that seemed like a storm of electrical charges.” The novels chart their friendship, lives and careers against the backdrop of Italian culture.
5. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (1877). Anna’s adulterous love affair with Count Vronsky—which follows an inevitable, devastating road from their dizzyingly erotic first encounter at a ball to Anna’s exile from society and her famous, fearful end—is a masterwork of tragic love. What makes the novel so deeply satisfying, though, is how Tolstoy balances the story of Anna’s passion with a second semiautobiographical story of Levin’s spirituality and domesticity. Levin commits his life to simple human values: his marriage to Kitty, his faith in God, and his farming. Tolstoy enchants us with Anna’s sin, then proceeds to educate us with Levin’s virtue.
6. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1866). In the peak heat of a St. Petersburg summer, an erstwhile university student, Raskolnikov, commits literature’s most famous fictional crime, bludgeoning a pawnbroker and her sister with an axe. What follows is a psychological chess match between Raskolnikov and a wily detective that moves toward a form of redemption for our antihero. Relentlessly philosophical and psychological, Crime and Punishment tackles freedom and strength, suffering and madness, illness and fate, and the pressures of the modern urban world on the soul, while asking if “great men” have license to forge their own moral codes.
7. Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (Part One, 1806; Part Two, 1831). Many told the story before him, and many others told it after, but no one has created a deeper and more compelling version of this classic German legend than Goethe did in two tragic plays written and rewritten over six decades. To tell the dramatic and tragic story of one man's pact with the Devil in exchange for knowledge and power, Goethe drew from an immense variety of cultural and historical material, and a wealth of poetic and theatrical traditions. What results is a tour de force illustrating Goethe's own moral and artistic development, a search for meaning in existence and of the soul as well as a symbolic, cautionary tale of Western humanity striving restlessly and ruthlessly for progress.
8. Either/Or: A Fragment of Life by Soren Kierkegaard (1843). Using the voices of two characters—the aesthetic young man of part one, called simply "A," and the ethical Judge Vilhelm of the second section—Kierkegaard reflects upon the search for a meaningful existence, contemplating subjects as diverse as Mozart, drama, boredom, and, in the famous Seducer's Diary, the cynical seduction and ultimate rejection of a young, beautiful woman. A masterpiece of duality, Either/Or explores the conflict between the aesthetic and the ethical - both meditating ironically and seductively upon Epicurean pleasures, and eloquently expounding the noble virtues of a morally upstanding life.
9. The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector (1977). Narrated by the cosmopolitan Rodrigo S.M., this brief, strange, and haunting tale is the story of Macabéa, one of life's unfortunates. Living in the slums of Rio and eking out a poor living as a typist, Macabéa loves movies, Coca-Colas, and her rat of a boyfriend; she would like to be like Marilyn Monroe, but she is ugly, underfed, sickly and unloved. Rodrigo recoils from her wretchedness, and yet he cannot avoid the realization that for all her outward misery, Macabéa is inwardly free/She doesn't seem to know how unhappy she should be. Lispector employs her pathetic heroine against her urbane, empty narrator―edge of despair to edge of despair―and, working them like a pair of scissors, she cuts away the reader's preconceived notions about poverty, identity, love and the art of fiction. In her last book she takes readers close to the true mystery of life and leaves us deep in Lispector territory indeed.
10. The I Ching (Book of Changes). Composed and transformed by various sources from roughly 1000 to 200 BCE, this work of poetic philosophy is one of the most influential books in Chinese, and world, history. Containing several layers of text and given numerous levels of interpretation, the I Ching has been venerated for more than three thousand years as an oracle of fortune, a guide to success, and a source of wisdom. The underlying theme of the text is change, and how this fundamental force influences all aspects of life - from business and politics to personal relationships.