Leaves of Grass

Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman (1855–91). Whitman spent half his life writing, revising, and republishing this collection, which is, at heart, a love song to the idea of America. Uneven and exuberant, Whitman acknowledges that “I celebrate myself, and sing myself,” yet he celebrates all of America in his long-lined free verse.

Les Misérables

Les Misérables by Victor Hugo (1862). Twenty years in the writing, this masterpiece of melodrama sweeps across unspeakable poverty, assumed identities, the sewers of Paris, and the battle of Waterloo while also making time for love, politics, architecture, history, and Hugo’s burning invective against social inequities.

Lies of Silence

Lies of Silence by Brian Moore (1990). A failed Irish poet who loathes his country decides to run away with his mistress to London. But then IRA terrorists snatch his shrewish wife, threatening to kill her unless he parks an explosive-laden car outside a hotel where a Protestant minister will be speaking.

Light Years

Light Years by James Salter (1975). This compact novel offers achingly perceptive scenes from a marriage during a twenty-year period. As Viri and Nedra Berland host dinner parties, shop in New York City, summer on Long Island, and take on lovers, they experience happiness, bereavement, isolation, and divorce.

Light in August

Light in August by William Faulkner (1932). This novel contains two of Faulkner’s most telling characters, the doggedly optimistic Lena Grove, who is searching for the father of her unborn child, and the doomed Joe Christmas, an orphan of uncertain race and towering rage.

Little Women

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1868). Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy: for girls who grew up reading about these four sisters, the names run together as readily as John, Paul, George, and Ringo. Maybe the magic of foursomes explains this novel’s enduring appeal. Readers get their pick of heroines: motherly Meg, harum-scarum Jo, goodness-personified Beth, or naughty Amy.