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1. The Arabian Nights: Tales from a Thousand and One Nights (c. 1450). Scheherazade receives the grim honor of marrying her King, who executes his wives on the day after the wedding night. Scheherazade delays her death by at least one thousand nights by telling tales that grow out of each other like the designs in a Turkish rug. Those childhood familiars, Sindbad, Ali Babba, and Aladdin, are all here.
2. The Book of Love: Poems of Ecstasy and Longing by Rumi (1707-1273). The Sufi mystic and poet Jalaluddin Rumi is most beloved for his poems expressing the ecstasies and mysteries of love in all its forms—erotic, platonic, divine. These startling and rich poems range from the "wholeness" one experiences with a true lover, to the grief of a lover's loss, and all the states in between: from the madness of sudden love to the shifting of a romance to deep friendship to the immersion in divine love. Rumi, the ultimate poet of love, explores all "the magnificent regions of the heart," and he opens you to the lover within. Coleman Barks has made this medieval, Persian-born (present-day Afghanistan) poetic and spiritual genius the most popular poet in America today. This seductive volume reveals Rumi's charms and depths more than any other.
3. Middlemarch by George Eliot (1871–72). Dorothea Brooke is a pretty young idealist whose desire to improve the world leads her to marry the crusty pedant Casaubon. This mistake takes her down a circuitous and painful path in search of happiness. The novel, which explores society’s brakes on women and deteriorating rural life, is as much a chronicle of the English town of Middlemarch as it is the portrait of a lady. Eliot excels at parsing moments of moral crisis so that we feel a character’s anguish and resolve. Her intelligent sympathy for even the most unlikable people redirects our own moral compass toward charity rather than enmity.
4. The stories of Anton Chekhov (1860–1904). The son of a freed Russian serf, Anton Chekhov became a doctor who, between the patients he often treated without charge, invented the modern short story. The form had been overdecorated with trick endings and swags of atmosphere. Chekhov freed it to reflect the earnest urgencies of ordinary lives in crises through prose that blended a deeply compassionate imagination with precise description. “He remains a great teacher-healer-sage,” Allan Gurganus observed of Chekhov’s stories, which “continue to haunt, inspire, and baffle.”
5. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce (1916). In this semiautobiographical novel, hero Stephen Dedalus rejects the world of his youth—Ireland in its provincialism, nationalism, Catholicism, and sexual guilt—for art. From its stream of consciousness technique to its descriptions of expatriate life in Paris, Portrait inspired nearly all the touchstones of twentieth-century modernism, the most important of which is the artist as a misunderstood god.
6. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (1927). The Ramsays and their eight children vacation with an assortment of scholarly and artistic houseguests by the Scottish seaside. Mainly set on two days ten years apart, the novel describes the loss, love, and disagreements of family life while reaching toward the bigger question—“What is the meaning of life?”—that Woolf addresses in meticulously crafted, modernist prose that is impressionistic without being vague or sterile.
7. Hamlet by William Shakespeare (1600). The most famous play ever written, Hamlet tells the story of a melancholic prince charged with avenging the murder of his father at the hands of his uncle, who then married his mother and, becoming King of Denmark, robbed Hamlet of the throne. Told the circumstances of this murder and usurpation by his father’s ghost, Hamlet is plunged deep into brilliant and profound reflection on the problems of existence, which meditations delay his revenge at the cost of innocent lives. When he finally acts decisively, Hamlet takes with him every remaining major character in a crescendo of violence unmatched in Shakespearean theater.
8. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1955). “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.” So begins the Russian master’s infamous novel about Humbert Humbert, a middle-aged man who falls madly, obsessively in love with a twelve-year-old “nymphet,” Dolores Haze. So he marries the girl’s mother. When she dies he becomes Lolita’s father. As Humbert describes their car trip—a twisted mockery of the American road novel—Nabokov depicts love, power, and obsession in audacious, shockingly funny language.
9. The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger (1951). After being dismissed from another prep school, Holden Caulfield—whose slangy, intimate narration defines this novel—has a series of misadventures in Manhattan before going home for Christmas. Haunted by the death of brother Allie, he wants what he cannot have—to snare the elusive Jane Gallagher, to run away with his sister Phoebe, to “catch” innocent youths before they fall into the “phony” world of adults. A timeless voice of adolescent rage and assurance, Holden may rank highest in the pantheon of antiestablishment heroes.
10. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway (1926). Hemingway’s first novel recounts the revels and misadventures of the expatriate community—including the introspective writer Jake Barnes and the tantalizingly elusive divorcée Lady Brett Ashley—in Paris and in Spain’s bullfighting centers. For all their wit, wealth, or social clout and despite their rounds of drunkenness and debauchery as repetitious as the sun’s daily rising, Hemingway’s jaded, morally bankrupt characters can’t get no satisfaction.