McTeague by Frank Norris (1899). Gritty realism, social conscience, and American dreams power this tale of an oafish mineworker who becomes an unlicensed dentist in San Francisco. He marries a young woman and together they share a happy life, until she wins a small fortune in the lottery.
Medea by Euripides (431 b.c.e.). What would you do if the man who promised you love, children, and a throne, after convincing you to slay your brother and exile yourself from your home, decided to marry a richer woman instead?
Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar (1951). The French author started her novel at age twenty-one; she rediscovered it at forty-six, ending a mammoth bout of writer’s block. Two years later she completed this intimate first-person narrative of the second-century emperor.
Metamorphoses by Ovid (8 c.e.). Shining through Ovid’s poetic encyclopedia of myths involving the transformations of gods and humans is this Heraclitean truth: existence is change. His versions of Orpheus, Narcissus, Pygmalion, and Hercules have been etched in our collective memory. Yet he was, as a critic once said, “counter-classical”—fun rather than imperial, personal rather than grave.
Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie (1981). Years before The Satanic Verses, Rushdie had already won the Booker Prize for this reverential and blasphemous novel. Two babies born at the precise moment modern India came into existence—one Muslim, one Hindu—are then switched at birth and grow up in the other’s faith.
Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain (1941). After shedding her philandering, unemployed husband, Mildred Pierce works menial jobs to support her two children before discovering a gift for making and selling pies in Depression-era California. She’s a strong woman with two fatal flaws—an attraction to weak men and blind devotion to her monstrously selfish daughter Veda.
Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West (1933). In this short novel on the soul-sickness of mass society, a New York advice columnist with a Christ complex is laid low by his taste for married women and his belief in his own redemptive powers.
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (1851). This sweeping saga of obsession, vanity, and vengeance at sea can be read as a harrowing parable, a gripping adventure story, or a semiscientific chronicle of the whaling industry.
Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable, a trilogy by Samuel Beckett (1951–54). Like the runner’s high or Zen meditation, Beckett’s opus yields the transcendence that succeeds tedium and pain. The trilogy chronicles a descent into living death by three narrators: vagabond, cripple, misfit.
Money by Martin Amis (1984). Subtitled “A Suicide Note,” this novel follows the death spiral of hedonistic film director John Self as he wrestles with Hollywood stars, New York producers, a flauntingly unfaithful London girlfriend, an anonymous ca.ller that seems to be coming from inside his head, and the writer Martin Amis.