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 Liaisons Dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos (1782). A candidate for “most cynical fiction ever penned,” the story features two charming but depraved aristocrats, the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont, who try to relieve their boredom by plotting the seduction of a young virgin and a virtuous wife.
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 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.
Life & Times of Michael K by J. M. Coetzee (1983). A retarded, nearly mute, harelipped man goes native in a South Africa torn by civil war, living off the land before being picked up and passed among institutions.
Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain (1883). This isn’t a book, but a two-part time machine. The first part is a work of literature, as Twain reimagines his salad days as a cub pilot learning to navigate the “fickle Mississippi.” His vivid you-are-there prose transports readers to the untamed land filled with rough-hewn people.
Life: A User’s Manual by Georges Perec (1978).
Appreciation of Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual by Arthur Phillips
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 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 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.