Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges (1944). Few twentieth-century literary works were as influential as Borges’s first collection of surreal “fictions.” Showcasing his deeply serious, brilliantly playful fascination with language, literature, and metaphysics, these seventeen stories—about imaginary books and labyrinthine libraries, cosmic detectives and strange lands—ask us to wonder about how we know what we know (or think we know) while helping light the fuse of postmodern pyrotechnics.
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.
Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino (1972). Fearing that his empire’s vastness has made it “an endless, formless ruin,” Kublai Khan asks the traveler Marco Polo to describe it to him so he might understand and thereby control it. What Polo offers are accounts of surreal places—“hidden cities,” “trading cities,” and “thin cities” (whose buildings have no walls, floors or ceilings)—inhabited by people whose actions seem inexplicable in this novel of ideas concerned with memory and time, language and community, and the landscapes of the physical world and the imagination.
Poems of Emily Dickinson (1830–86). Quirkily punctuated and rhymed, thoughtful and unsentimental, these brief, aphoristic lyrics meditate upon God, nature, and the internal weather of the emotions—“The soul unto itself / Is an Imperial friend—/ Or the most agonizing spy / An enemy could send.” A spinster who published only two of her nearly two thousand poems, Dickinson saw her work as a vehicle for spiritual exploration and as messages to a world “that never wrote to me.”
Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare (1595). The story of star-crossed Veronese lovers, this early romantic tragedy painfully depicts the fatal course of young lovers ruined by circumstances beyond their control, belonging as they do to two families who hate each other for long forgotten reasons. The intense violence at the heart of the play is matched only by the intense passion of Romeo and Juliet, who pay the ultimate price for the brief, intense, and pure love they shared.
The Moviegoer by Walker Percy (1961). The moviegoer is Binx Bolling, a young New Orleans stockbroker who surveys the world with the detached gaze of a Bourbon Street dandy even as he yearns for a spiritual redemption he cannot bring himself to believe in. On the eve of his thirtieth birthday, he occupies himself dallying with his secretaries and going to movies, which provide him with the "treasurable moments" absent from his real life. But one fateful Mardi Gras, Binx embarks on a hare-brained quest that outrages his family, endangers his fragile cousin Kate, and sends him reeling through the chaos of New Orleans' French Quarter in this wry and wrenching tale rich in irony and romance which was awarded the National Book Award.
The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene (1940). In all of Greene’s prolific career, he never surpassed the stark beauty of this tale of a priest who is virtuous despite himself. Set in Mexico during the revolution, when Catholicism was illegal, the novel follows the movements of a character known only as “the whisky priest”—he drinks, he bilks the faithful, he has fathered a child. But as his world narrows and he must make life or death choices, his life becomes a complicated display of salvation.
The Regeneration trilogy by Pat Barker (1995). These three novels—Regeneration (1991), The Eye in the Door (1993), and The Ghost Road (1995)—offer an unflinching look at World War I. Starting with the real-life psychiatric treatment of poet and British officer Sigfried Sassoon for shellshock, Barker shows how the war ruined but failed to replace nineteenth-century norms of gender, class, sexuality, and honor.
Germinal by Émile Zola (1884). As in old pictures of Pittsburgh, a pall of industrial smoke seems to hang over Zola’s grim, stirring novel about a miners strike. Zola uses his usual style of fine-grained graininess to describe the lives crushed (sometimes literally) by work, and the excessive poverty to which the miners’ families seem condemned. His is a collective portrait in which his main character, Etienne Lantier, gets engulfed by the hugeness and dangerousness of the mines (which bear the sinister nickname Le Voreux, or “the voracious ones”) and the eventual revolt against the mining company.
Stones for Ibarra by Harriet Doerr (1984). Seeking renewal, Richard and Sara Everton leave San Francisco for a remote village in Mexico. There they hope to reopen Richard’s grandfather’s old mine, to “patch the present on to the past. To find out if there was still copper underground and how much the rest of it was true, the width of the sky, the depth of the stars, the air like new wine, the harsh noons and long, slow dusks.” In lovely, spare prose, this National Book Award–winning novel describes the Evertons’ flowering relationships with the vividly drawn people of Ibarra and the deadly illness that hovers over their happiness.
The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki (1943–48). Serialized during wartime, this epic novel chronicles the decline of the Osaka family and the transformation of traditional Japanese society. As their fortunes wither, elder sisters Tsuruko and Sachiko try to preserve the family name and marry off the talented, sensitive Yukiko. All the while the youngest sister, Taeko, aches for freedom from her sisters’ conservatism. Tanizaki uses detailed descriptions of Japanese traditions, such as the tea ceremony, to underscore their fleetingness in an era of rapid modernization.
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886). This novel might easily have become a victim of its own surpassing fame, which has removed all suspense from its central riddle: What is the relationship between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde? Yet as our narrator plumbs Dr. Jekyll’s descent into drug-addled, alter-ego madness, we are riveted by Stevenson’s portrait of the good and evil that lurks in one man’s heart. “This, too, was myself,” Jekyll says of Hyde. Somehow we suspect it’s us, too.
The Tin Drum by Günter Grass (1959). This picaresque novel depicts the rise of Nazism in Germany and its terrible consequences through the adventures of Oskar Matzerath, “the eternal three-year-old” who stunts his growth at three feet and uses his tin drum and piercing screams as weapons against a mad world. Chilling and absurd, teeming with black comedy and dark insights into the human soul, The Tin Drum is both an artistic triumph and an act of reclamation. As the Swedish Academy observed while presenting Grass with the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999, the novel “comes to grips with the enormous task of reviewing contemporary history by recalling the disavowed and the forgotten: the victims, losers, and lies that people wanted to forget because they had once believed in them.”
The Waves by Virgina Woolf (1931). This grand experiment in narrative depicts six characters—from nursery school to the brink of old age—through a series of interior soliloquies. Stages in their lives are framed by bits of description of a day on a deserted beach; the book’s finale, their reunion at a London restaurant, is a tour de force. “The light of civilization is burnt out,” one character thinks while gazing at London’s night sky in this haunting, poetic meditation on time’s passage.
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens (1849–50). Dickens’s most autobiographical novel chronicles his hero’s ever-changing fortunes, beginning with his famous opening line, “I am born.” As a boy, David is swept between school and the workhouse; later, between the law and literature; and then between his vapid wife Dora and his true love Agnes. Ingratiating Uriah Heep, talented Mr. Micawber, devoted nurse Peggoty, and willing Barkis are some of the most memorable characters in the entire Dickens canon.
Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather (1927). Two French missionaries come to the vast and untamed deserts of New Mexico in 1851. Through a series of often symbolic stories about their shared and personal experiences over forty years, Cather depicts both vanished landscapes and timeless themes of faith, loneliness, and our relationships with one another and the natural world.
East of Eden by John Steinbeck (1952). A retelling of Cain and Abel set in California’s Salinas Valley between the Civil War and World War I, this novel takes off when Adam Trask realizes that maybe he shouldn’t have married the lovely yet soulless prostitute Cathy Ames: on their wedding night she betrays him with his brother. Still, they produce twin boys, but Cathy, driven by undeniable demons, forsakes the newborns for her old life. Adam tells his rivalrous sons—Caleb, the bad penny, and sweet Aron—their mother is dead. But when Caleb learns the truth, the family’s uneasy peace gives way to mayhem and a searing battle between good and evil as characters grapple with their destiny.
Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys (1939). On hell’s short bookshelf of great writing about alcohol, this novel is narrated by Sasha Jansen, a semi-writer at loose ends who is planning a permanent swan dive into the bottle. While Virginia Woolf thought women needed a room of their own for creative work, Jansen believes “a room is a place where you hide from the wolves outside.” Jansen’s fugue through 1930s Paris, while pursued by age, disapproving bartenders, and a stubborn gigolo, is a café blues song: stylish and haunting.
Oedipus trilogy by Sophocles (496–406 b.c.e.). Like an existential sadist, Sophocles explores the tragic complexities of fate by hurling his characters into situations in which they are simultaneously guilty and innocent, forced to choose between right and right or wrong and wrong—or some painfully imprecise combination of the two. In Oedipus the King, Oedipus is desperate to escape his fate—that he will murder his father and marry his mother—yet inexorably fulfills it with devastating effect. In Oedipus at Colonus, the blind, self-exiled ruler moves toward faith and goodness as his sons battle for his throne. In the third play, Antigone, his loving and upright daughter is forced to choose with climactic consequence between equally worthy goals as Sophocles depicts our struggles to explain a world we can scarcely comprehend.
Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates (1961). Trying to avoid the conformity of their suburban neighbors on Revolutionary Road, Frank and April Wheeler talk of moving to France where Frank might write the great book or think the great thoughts April believes he is capable of. However, infidelity and alcohol abuse dissolve their dreams as Frank and April lose faith in each other and themselves in this exquisitely painful novel.
Ship of Fools by Katherine Anne Porter (1962). The celebrated miniaturist’s only long fiction, which was thirty years in the making, is a bitter satire depicting a 1931 ocean voyage from Mexico (Veracruz) to Germany (Bremen). Inspired by Sebastian Brant’s fifteenth-century allegory of the same title, it is a portrayal of marital, class, and ethnic conflicts among passengers aboard the ship Vera (“Truth”). These include an ailing doctor, a drug-addicted “Contessa,” various uprooted Americans, gypsy dancers, and twin malevolent children. Praised for its artistry, condemned for its vitriolic anti-German sentiment, Porter’s Odyssey remains a fascinating, infuriating novel.
Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser (1900). Ambitious farm girl Carrie Meeber comes to Chicago, gaining the favor of a wealthy bar manager named Hurstwood to avoid the sweatshops. The smitten man ditches his family, absconds with company funds, and moves to New York with Carrie. When he can’t find work his star falls as Carrie’s rises in the theater. Filled with the tensions between rural America and its bustling urban future, and between propriety and ambition, Sister Carrie is a haunting portrait of a nation’s contradictory impulses.
The Bear by William Faulkner (1942). A highly atmospheric paean to the vanishing wilderness, this novella crisscrosses time and memory to chronicle Ike McCaslin’s coming-of-age through annual hunting parties in the Mississippi woods. Beginning with his first trip at age ten, we watch him master the art of hunting, learning the ways of men and the woods. The ultimate prize is the legendary bear, Old Ben, a symbol of the untamed world “which the little puny humans swarmed and hacked at in a fury of abhorrence and fear.” When sixteen-year-old Ike gets Old Ben in his sights, history, maturity, and ecological consciousness collide in a powerful rite of passage.
The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing (1962). In her epic fusion of structural experiment and exhaustive realism, Lessing lays bare the splintered state of modern womanhood. In four separate notebooks, Anna Wulf records different aspects of her life: her consecutive and unfulfilling love affairs, her memories of Africa, her struggles with motherhood, and above all, her growing disenchantment with communism. Lessing’s novel foreshadowed the concerns of the women’s movement, becoming a major feminist text.
The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene (1948). This novel tells the story of a good man enmeshed in love, intrigue, and evil in a West African coastal town. Scobie is bound by strict integrity to his role as assistant police commissioner and by severe responsibility to his wife, Louise, for whom he cares with a fatal pity. When Scobie falls in love with the young widow Helen, he finds vital passion again yielding to pity, integrity giving way to deceit and dishonor—a vortex leading directly to murder. As Scobie's world crumbles, his personal crisis develops the foundation of a story by turns suspenseful, fascinating, and, finally, tragic.
American Pastoral by Philip Roth (1997). As the close of the 20th century, the American century, Roth delivered an elegy for all of its promises of prosperity, civic order, and domestic bliss. Roth's protagonist is Swede Levov, a legendary athlete at his Newark high school, who grows up in the booming postwar years to marry a former Miss New Jersey, inherit his father's glove factory, and move into a stone house in the idyllic hamlet of Old Rimrock. And then one day in 1968, Swede's beautiful American luck deserts him. For Swede's adored daughter, Merry, has grown from a loving, quick-witted girl into a sullen, fanatical teenager—a teenager capable of an outlandishly savage act of political terrorism. And overnight Swede is wrenched out of the longer-for American pastoral and into the indigenous American berserk. And there he seeks the help of Roth’s alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, to help him make sense of it all.