Henry V by William Shakespeare (1599). The final play in the Second Henriad (with Henry IV, Parts I and II), Henry V is, ostensibly, a celebration of Henry’s victory over his archenemy, the French, at Agincourt in 1415. Henry thus construed is a great national hero. But the play actually subverts, or at least compromises, such a reading.
Herzog by Saul Bellow (1964). Moses Herzog has two problems: his book on imagination and the intellect has stalled and his second wife has run away with his best friend.
His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman (1995–2000). This epic trilogy, comprised of Northern Lights (a.k.a., The Golden Compass), The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass, reconceives Paradise Lost as an adventure/fantasy from an atheist, humanist perspective. Like Adam and Eve, Lyra and Will embrace knowledge. But for them it is the path to liberation, not damnation.
Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell (1940). Orwell’s memoir of going to fight on the republican side in the Spanish Civil War combines early Hemingway’s disabused attitude toward war with Leon Trotsky’s talent for political analysis.
Hombre by Elmore Leonard (1961). Displaying his trademark ability to turn pulp into art, Leonard elevates the classic Western through the story of John Russell, a white man raised partly by Apache Indians who taught him how to fight and survive. The action begins when Russell boards a stagecoach and is rejected by passengers because of his roots. When outlaws pounce, the others turn to him for protection.
Howards End by E. M. Forster (1921). This novel begins with literature’s most famous epigraph: “Only connect.” That search for human understanding—and the implied rarity of such knowledge—informs this saga of Margaret and Helen Schlegel, two bohemian sisters who become mixed up with the pragmatic, wealthy Wilcox family.
Howl by Allen Ginsberg (1956). The title poem is considered the signature poem of the Beat generation. In language that blesses, curses, sorrows, and comforts, Ginsberg laments “the best minds of my generation . . . destroyed by madness.” Begun in isolation and anger, the poem reaches a kind of saintliness and communion.
I, Claudius by Robert Graves (1934). Here is everything you could want in a novel about ancient Rome: warfare and spectacle, scandal and intrigue (and still more intrigue). The Claudius of Graves’s imagination—a disarmingly charming pedant and reluctant tyrant—confides his beginnings as a crippled, unwanted child and the internecine dynastic struggles that left him the last man standing.
Ill Seen, Ill Said by Samuel Beckett (1981). In terse, haunting prose, Beckett’s novella meditates on the absurdities of life and death, our grim longing for happiness, and “that old tandem” of reality and its unnamable “contrary.” The narrative itself, boiled down to poetic reflections, focuses on an old woman enduring her last days in a remote cabin.