Don Juan by Lord Byron (1819). Byron was a gentleman, a womanizer, a cad, and a liberator. He poured a lifetime of observations into this seventeen canto poem. Ostensibly about a Spanish boy sent abroad by his mother after an unfortunate love affair, it has the spontaneous gaiety of a man who is courteously maintaining the fiction that the reader’s experience of women, politics, poetry, and the world is as extensive as his own. Thus Byron transformed his greatest masterpiece—his life—into art.
The List of Books
We awarded points for each selection – 10 points for a first place pick, nine points for a second place pick, and so on. Then we totaled up all the points and ranked them accordingly. Here are all the books ordered by the number of points each earned. In the parentheses are the initials of the authors that selected them and the points earned. Click on their initials to see their list.
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. Faulkner’s signature concerns about birth and heritage, race, religion, and the inescapable burdens of the past power this fierce, unflinching, yet hopeful novel.
Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich (1984). The form of this novel, about two Native American families, reenacts that of a traditional Chippewa Indian story cycle—fourteen stories told by seven characters, forming a collage that forces the reader to sift through and weigh voice against voice, truth against truth. The book’s main story—a long-standing love triangle among a husband and wife and the promiscuous Lulu Lamartine—is often upstaged by Erdrich’s antimythic portrayal of Native Americans cut off from their traditional land, culture, and gods.
Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1864). Aloof, unhappy, and tortured by his own “hyperconsciousness,” Dostoevsky’s narrator prefers to remain underground, away from normal life, because at least there he can be free. When he forces himself to dine with three schoolfellows, their carefree laughter and drinking sends him “into a fury.” Afterward, he is seemingly moved by the plight of a young prostitute. But neither pity nor love is re deeming in this story whose narrator asks: “Which is better—cheap happiness or exalted suffering?” Dostoevsky’s preference is clear.
The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1958). While liberal rebels roam the hills of Sicily, and rumors spread that Garibaldi’s army is poised for invasion, the old prince Don Fabrizio struggles to manage his vast and now threatened estates. “I belong to an unfortunate generation,” he says, “swung between the old world and the new, and I find myself ill at ease in both.” While charting what he sees as nineteenth-century Sicily’s necessary movement toward science and liberal politics, Lampedusa uses the admirable prince to suggest the traditions and values lost in the process.
The Stand by Stephen King (1978). This vivid apocalyptic tale with dozens of finely drawn characters begins with the military’s mistaken release of a deadly superflu that wipes out almost everyone on earth. The few survivors, spread out across the barren United States, are visited in their dreams by a kindly old woman in Nebraska and a sinister man in the West. They begin making their way toward these separate camps for what will prove to be a last stand between the forces of good and evil.
The Tempest by William Shakespeare (1610). The happy peace that Prospero, a powerful magician and former Duke of Milan, and his daughter Miranda share on an enchanted island is broken when a group of Prospero’s former enemies and friends is shipwrecked there. Through the services of his two servants, the base Caliban, to whom the island had originally belonged, and the sprite Ariel, Prospero exacts revenge upon his stranded enemies while engineering the marriage of his daughter to a young nobleman. Anticipating themes that would inform colonial and postcolonial literature— usurpation, bondage, rebellion— this was Shakespeare’s last play without a collaborator.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937). Beautiful and high-spirited Janie Crawford wants love and adventure. But, as Hurston shows in her finest novel, living in an all-black town is no shield against the sexism that dictates her young life. Forced to marry one controlling old geezer, she deserts him only to end up with another. When she marries Tea Cake, Janie finally enjoys the essence of a true relationship. Her happiness is short-lived when disaster strikes, but it becomes the catalyst for ultimate self-discovery.
A Passage to India by E. M. Forster (1924). A handful of English people searching for the “real” India get far more than they bargained for—up to and including a terrifying transcendental experience in a very dark cave. Forster’s novel of the Raj is infused with a generous, liberal humanism; the author writes like a man determined that Indians should populate a novel of India, and he succeeds in this beautifully imagined portrait of both colonizer and colonized.
Candide by Voltaire (1759). In this withering satire of eighteenth-century optimism, Candide wanders the world testing his tutor Pangloss’s belief that we live in the “best of all possible worlds.” When Candide loses his true love, gets flogged in the army, injured in an earthquake, and robbed in the New World, he finally muses, “If this is the best of all possible worlds, what are the others?” In response to life’s mysteries, he concludes, the best we can do is patiently cultivate our own gardens.
Clarissa by Samuel Richardson (1747–48). This long epistolary novel—full of sexual tension, violence, and psychic conflict—tells the tale of the virtuous Clarissa Harlowe and her rakish suitor, Robert Lovelace. Disowned by her family, confined in a brothel and raped, Clarissa pays a high price for her morality. Yet she accepts her fate with a moving acceptance in this landmark of English realistic fiction.
Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (1719). This rollicking yet existential adventure with deep religious undertones begins with fatherly advice: pursue a stable career. But the wastrel son denies his father because he is tempted by the sea. This salty path gets young Robinson kidnapped by Moorish pirates, sold into slavery, and shipwrecked on a remote island filled with cannibals. Yet this island seems an Eden to Crusoe, whose ingenuity enables him to tame the land, conquer the natives, and save the life of an islander, whom he makes his servant and christens Man Friday, as he comes to recognize and accept God’s will.
Tom Jones by Henry Fielding (1749). Squire Allworthy provides a loving home to his bad nephew Blifil and the bastard orphan Tom. Lusty Tom is sent away after an affair with a local girl whom Blifil desires, and he begins his picaresque adventures on the way to London, including love affairs, duels, and imprisonment. Comic, ribald, and highly entertaining, Tom Jones reminds us just how rowdy the eighteenth century got before the nineteenth came and stopped the fun.
1984 by George Orwell (1948). Orwell’s reputation as an antiauthoritarian arises in large part from this novel set in a totalitarian future in which citizens are constantly reminded “Big Brother is watching” as they are spied upon by the Thought Police and one another. In this landscape, Winston Smith is a man in danger simply because his memory works. He understands that the Party’s total control of its citizens is based on its ability to control its message and its citizens’ memories, and he is slowly drawn into a dangerous love affair and then an alliance, called the Brotherhood, of men and women united to fight Big Brother. Some of the vocabulary Orwell created for 1984—newspeak, doublethink, Big Brother—have become part of today’s vocabulary.
Ask the Dust by John Fante (1939). This coming-of-age tale features Fante’s alter ego, Arturo Bandini: a poor, innocent, aspiring writer from Colorado, stretching out his limbo in 1930s Los Angeles. Bandini prowls the city’s dusty alleys for experience he can turn into prose, eats oranges in his hotel room, and dreams of success. Awkward with women, he falls for a troubled Mexican waitress but can’t sustain the relationship. He squanders what little money he earns. All he desires is literary glory, so that even when he nearly drowns, he thinks: “This was the end of Arturo Bandini—but even then I was writing it all down.”
Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson (1992). Although the title comes from Lou Reed’s song “Heroin,” it assumes another meaning in this collection of eleven linked short stories about a character who endures drug addiction, car crashes, and violence to learn who he is and achieve some grace. The characters sometimes seem futile as they score drugs and scrounge for money and love, but the real story is the narrator’s fumbling process toward self-discovery.
Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges (1964). Simultaneously philosophical and nightmarish, this collection of short stories, parables, and essays popularized both Latin American magic realism as well as metafiction. Borges, a blind Argentine librarian and polymath, here provides almost mathematically concise miniatures—of a man who remembers literally everything, for instance—that read like episodes of The Twilight Zone as written by a metaphysician.
Mrs. Bridge (1959) and Mr. Bridge (1969) by Evan S. Connell. This his and hers pairing, like twinned guest towels, reveals dirty fingerprints on the underside of a tidy looking 1930s Midwestern, middle-class marriage. Through fragments of conversations, overheard remarks, and wry observations, Connell slices into the Bridges’ relationship, first revealing Mrs. Bridge’s evaporation into suburban ennui, then exposing Mr. Bridge’s increasing distance and disdain. The novels, set a decade apart, reveal two dimensions of the troubled family, which includes three children.
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (1920). Martin Scorsese called his 1993 movie of this novel the most violent film he had made—quite a statement from the director of Raging Bull. The innocence here is not in the setting of 1870s upper-crust New York, whose starch-stiff social code hides a viper’s nest of jealousies and conspiracy, but in hero Newland Archer, a newlywed socialite who fancies himself simply an observer of his class. His infatuation with a European divorcée leads to a most unsentimental education on his true position.
The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson (1952). Lou Ford is the boy next door—a deputy sheriff in his Texas hometown. But he suffers from “the sickness,” which urges him to kill women and others who get in his way. Through Ford’s chilling first-person narration, Thompson takes us inside the mind of a serial killer.
The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler (1953). Chandler’s sardonic and chivalric gumshoe Philip Marlowe winds up in jail when he refuses to betray a client to the Los Angeles police investigating the murder of a wealthy woman. Marlowe’s incorruptibility and concentration on the case are challenged even more when the obsessively independent private eye falls in love, apparently for the first time, with a different rich and sexy woman. She proposes marriage, but he puts her off, claiming he feels “like a pearl onion on a banana split” among her set.
The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie (1988). After terrorists blow up their plane, two Indian actors fall from the sky. When they land, one has a halo, the other horns. This lush, lyric, sensual, and surreal novel then follows two main interrelated plots that skate along the blurry lines between good and evil, love and betrayal, knowledge and ignorance. The first plot line details these men’s tangled lives and strange transformations in London and Bombay; the second reimagines the life of Mohammed so critically that Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeni issued a death sentence against Rushdie.
A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell (1951–75). Powell’s panoramic series of twelve freestanding novels, grouped in four “movements,” charts the careers of four public-school friends from 1921 to 1971 against the backdrop of rapidly changing London. Built mosaic-like from many intimate, seemingly inconsequential encounters and scenes, the narrative moves with the pace, prismatic glitter, and cumulative force of a glacier, sweeping along sex, art, business, politics, and values in its wake. Devotees, who consider Powell to be England’s answer to Proust, praise the elegant style, intricate plotting, and above all the masterly characterizations, in a work that encompasses comedy, tragedy, and realism.
A Death in the Family by James Agee (1957). A Pulitzer Prize–winning work of autobiographical fiction tells the story of a Knoxville, Tennessee, family torn asunder by the father’s accidental death in 1915. In stunningly gorgeous prose, Agee chronicles the family’s life before and after the tragedy (as well as the larger community they live in), to depict the fragility of happiness, of family, and of life itself.
Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko (1977). Like many returning soliders, Tayo, who is half white and half Laguna Indian, has a hard time readjusting to civilian life after World War II, when he was held prisoner by the Japanese. Instead of venting his rage or turning to drink, he connects with a medicine man who helps him find solace through traditional ceremonies that reveal life as a process of change and growth.