L’Assommoir (The Dram Shop) by Émile Zola (1877). Like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, this story—of the downfall of a Parisian laundress—turned a burning social issue into a sensational best-seller. The desperate alcoholism of Gervaise Lantier and her husband held a mirror to the shocking moral condition of the urban poor. But it is saved from mere didacticism by Zola’s eye and ear.
Macbeth by William Shakespeare (1606). The shortest of Shakespeare’s tragedies, Macbeth runs along at breakneck speed, elevating Macbeth from Thane of Glamis to Thane of Cawdor to King of Scotland in two brief acts.
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (1857). Of the many nineteenth-century novels about adulteresses, only Madame Bovary features a heroine frankly detested by her author.
Mahabharata (fifth century b.c.e.). Said to be the second-longest epic poem in the world (behind Tibet’s Epic of King Gesar), the Mahabarata is also, along with the Ramayana, one of the two defining books of Hindu culture. Its core narrative relates the clashes between two groups of royal Indian cousins—one descended from gods, the other from demons.
Masquerade and Other Stories by Robert Walser (1878–1956). Beloved of other writers but not known to a broad reading public in America, Walser was a formative influence on many writers, including Franz Kafka and Robert Musil.
Man’s Fate by André Malraux (1933). Chronicling the communist uprising against Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalists in Shanghai in 1927, this novel is a revolutionary’s cookbook.
Manchild in the Promised Land by Claude Brown (1965). Fierce, unsparing language and plenty of street jive power this autobiographical novel recounting Brown’s early life as a drug dealer, hustler, and thief amid the numbers runners, prostitutes, cops, and hardworking parents of Harlem in the 1940s and 1950s.
Mansfield Park by Jane Austen (1814). Fanny Price is the least loved of Austen’s heroines: “prig” is a common complaint of her critics. It’s true that reticent, unsure Fanny Price, sent to live with her cold, wealthy relatives, lacks the Austen spunk.
Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon (1997). Charles Mason (1728-1786) and Jeremiah Dixon (1733-1779) were the British surveyors best remembered for running the boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland that we know today as the Mason-Dixon Line.