Michael Griffith on Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis is widely considered Brazil’s Shakespeare. The critic Harold Bloom included him on his list of the 100 greatest literary geniuses – alongside Dante, Cervantes and, of course, the Sweet Swan of Avon.

Through innovative novels, poems, short stories and plays, the 19th century writer (1839-1908) spun compelling tales that pierced the veil between the imagination and objective reality. Some critics have described his work as Romantic Realism.

Allan Gurganus

Allan Gurganus is good for the mind and the soul.

His brand new collection, The Uncollected Stories of Allan Gurganus, offers nine smart and thoroughly entertaining tales that overflow with news of the spirit. His characters are far from perfect – but Gurganus loves them, warts and all, depicting them with a radical dignity. As they often make us laugh out loud, his stories show us how we ought to think and feel toward one another when guided by our better angels.

J. Peder Zane on Miguel Cervantes

Don Quixote has been challenging my honor for decades.

“You want the world to think you are well-read, a true Señor of letters,” he admonished each time I looked up at him on the shelf. “You may even believe it yourself. Yet here I sit, my spine miraculously strong and stiff; a joke you would appreciate if you knew me.”

Once I reminded him that I had read the first 75 of his 940 pages – which is actually two books for goodness sake. Big mistake: “Then you, sir, are both a fraud and a quitter.”

As he spat those words, I heard his fellow guilt trippers, Andrew Bolkonski and Dorthea Brooke, snickering.

Jonathan Lethem

What would you do if one day all technology began to fail you? If slowly but surely, cell phones ceased to make calls, airplanes refused to lift off the ground and the Internet was no more? Imagine yourself in this scenario and you’ve transported to the reality of Jonathan Lethem’s latest novel, The Arrest.

Stephen King on The Golden Argosy

Stephen King is a master of mystery and suspense. So of course his Top Ten list starts with a big surprise: a little noted and long out-of-print short story anthology.

The Golden Argosy: The Most Celebrated Short Stories in the English Language was one of innumerable works published during the 20th century that sought to make it easier for busy, middle class Americans to access literature. Back before the yoga boom, many people considered reading the path to enlightenment.

Daniel Wallace on Italo Calvino

An armchair psychiatrist might suggest the Italian author Italo Calvino’s career was a long and wondrous exercise in rebellion against his parents. Regarded as a master of magical realism, Calvino (1923-1985) was reared by two staunch empiricists. Both his parents were botanists who encouraged free-thinking, fiercely rejected religion and were deeply committed to seeing the world as it was.

While he admired his parents and their work in the scientific field, he was drawn towards the humanities from a young age. However, in an effort to appease his parents’ desires for him, Calvino studied agronomy at the University of Turin and then later at the University of Florence. But, secretly, Calvino dreamed of becoming a playwright, reading and writing in much of his free time. 

Louis D. Rubin Jr. on Eudora Welty

Storytelling imbues Southern life. The great Mississippi writer Eudora Welty (1909-2001) highlighted this when a Paris Review interviewer asked her in 1972 if she was an eavesdropper: I’m not as much as I used to be, or would like to be, because I don’t hear as well as I used to, or there’s too much other noise everywhere. But I’ve heard some wonderful remarks. Well, in the South, everybody stays busy talking all the time—they’re not sorry for you to overhear their tales. I don’t feel in helping myself I ever did anything underhanded. I was helping out.”

Paula Fox on Heinrich von Kleist

In 1811, the German writer Heinrich von Kleist shot the woman he loved and then himself in a murder-suicide pact.

His beloved Henriette Vogel was dying of uterine cancer and Von Kleist, though just 34, had long questioned the purpose of life. In his final letter, to his sister, he wrote: “The truth is, nothing on earth can help me. And now good-bye: may Heaven send you a death even half equal to mine in joy and unutterable bliss: that is the most heart-felt and profoundest wish that I can think of for you.”

Kathryn Harrison on Kobo Abe

Kobo Abe (1924-1973) was a giant of post-war Japanese literature, whose novels and plays captured the alienation and loss of identity his society wrestled with after their defeat. Abe’s personal history sensitized him to these dynamics. While he was young, his father took the family to Manchuria, in northern China, where he practiced medicine. Japan soon invaded and then brutally occupied the province, developing Abe’s lifelong ambivalence with his nation.

After the war, he explored the profound sense of confusion and loss in Japan’s growing urban centers through deeply imagined absurdist works that are often described as Kafakaesque. His major works include: