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.
Impressions of Africa by Raymond Roussel (1910). The masterpiece of one of France’s leading experimental writers, this novel begins with the shipwreck of a band of Europeans held for ransom in a mythical African kingdom. As they await their release, each displays a theatrical or technical skill to be showcased at a gala ball.
Independent People by Halldór Laxness (1934). The Icelandic Nobel laureate’s best novel is a chronicle of endurance and survival, whose stubborn protagonist Bjartür “of Summerhouses” is a sheepherder at odds with inclement weather, poverty, society in particular and authority in general, and his own estranged family.
Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino (1972). Fearing that his empire’s vastness has made it “an endless, formless ruin,” Kublai Khan asks the traveler Marco Polo to describe it to him so he might understand and thereby control it.
Island: The Complete Stories by Alistair MacLoed (2000). A book-besotted patriarch releases his only son from the obligations of the sea. A father provokes his young son to violence when he reluctantly sells the family horse. A passionate girl who grows up on a nearly deserted island turns into an ever-wistful woman when her one true love is felled by a logging accident.
Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf (1922). Woolf’s first novel to depart from a linear, traditional style follows Jacob Flanders as he goes through Cambridge, carries on love affairs in London, and travels in Greece.
Jazz by Toni Morrison (1992). In the winter of 1926, when everybody everywhere sees nothing but good things ahead, Joe Trace, middle-aged door-to-door salesman of Cleopatra beauty products, shoots his teenage lover to death. At the funeral, Joe’s wife, Violet, attacks the girl’s corpse.
Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson (1992). Although the title comes from Lou Reed’s song “Heroin,” it assumes another meaning in this collection of eleven linked short stories about a character who endures drug addiction, car crashes, and violence to learn who he is and achieve some grace.