Lately, I have been turning to older novels for my reading, as a means of escape from the stresses of being alive, here, in 2017. Older books offer a unique form of immersion in another time and place, as actually lived by the writer, rather than as imagined by a writer conjuring up a historical time or a fantasy world.
I have been most attracted to mid-twentieth-century novels of suspense by women. There is no shortage of good writers to choose from, and burrowing into these books feels like sinking into a very long Hitchcock movie, where everyone was well dressed, and their madnesses were kept just simmering beneath the surface, rather than on display for all to see. These novels offer plenty to disturb and horrify, but the horror feels once removed, and therefore safer, I think, than trying to tackle a dystopia or apocalypse that might shade too close to real life right now.
Here is a short reading list, although anything you might pick up by these grandes dames is bound to satisfy you:
- Daphne du Maurier: Rebecca, The Scapegoat
- Patricia Highsmith: The Blunderer, Deep Water
- Dorothy B. Hughes: The Blackbirder, The Expendable Man
- Shirley Jackson: The Bird’s Nest, Hangsaman
- Margaret Millar: A Stranger in My Grave
Ceremony by Leslie Silko is a 1970s classic of Native American literature, a slow but powerful read. Tayo returns home to the Laguna Pueblo reservation from World War II suffering from PTSD and attempts to cure himself by reconnecting with the traditional ceremonies of his people. This lovely cover is for the Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition.
I promise that this is the absolute last reading list I will post. Ha ha, no.
What if you are starting your reading completely from scratch? What should you read to have a good foundation on which your future reading will rest? What are those books that sparked legions of imitators and inserted themselves permanently in our shared cultural consciousness?
This is my attempt to craft a foundational reading list, one that is not only easily achievable (no, you don’t have to read Ulysses) but also enjoyable. Published in the previous two hundred years (1810-2010), these novels offer a variety of viewpoints, genres, and styles. Yet all have been highly influential on how we see ourselves as human beings. I consider these the essential books–all truly worth reading.
Is this list perfect? Of course not, but it’s a great place to start. One book always leads to another, and I hope these books will lead the burgeoning reader on to further discoveries.
Sixty books may seem like a lot. So why not set a goal of reading one book a month? Or even read one a week (or so) and power through the list in just over a year. Many of these selections are short and, more importantly, they’re fun to read. I’ve arranged the list in chronological order, but tackle them any which way. The most important thing is to keep reading and to love your reading life.
By the way, I have omitted children’s and young adult books from this list. That would be another list in itself.
- Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen* (1813) – The choices that women must make.
- Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818) – The first science fiction novel, the modern monster.
- Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (1847) – A woman lives life on her terms.
- Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (1857) – A woman desperately pursues a life that might fulfill her.
- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884) – To grasp our shameful American history, as seen through the eyes of a child.
- The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886) – A foundational horror novel about the duality of human nature.
- The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (1891) – Can you live a life of debauchery without consequences? Another foundational novel for modern horror.
- Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897) – Legions of vampires would not exist without him.
- The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells* (1897) – The father of science fiction, the psychological consequences of pursuing unnatural power.
- The Turn of the Screw by Henry James (1898) – More than just a ghost story, an early psychological thriller and a terrific example of the unreliable narrator.
- The Awakening by Kate Chopin (1899) – A woman awakens to the desire to live as she feels inside.
- The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (1899) – The horror of Western expansion into Africa.
- The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle (1902) – The first and still greatest detective.
- A Room With a View by E.M. Forster* (1908) – A treatise in how to live.
- The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (1920) – How society’s rules imprison us.
- The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925) – Skewering the myth of the American dream.
- The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie (1926) – The queen of mystery’s most famous case.
- The Good Earth by Pearl Buck (1931) – Travel to a foreign land: pre-Revolution China.
- Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932) – One frightening vision of what humanity can become.
- Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers (1936) – More than just a great mystery, also a debate on the role and purpose of women, a debate we are still having today.
- Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck* (1937) – Still skewering the myth of the American dream.
- Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (1938) – A foundational suspense story, often imitated, never surpassed.
- 1984 by George Orwell* (1949) – Another frightening vision of what humanity can become.
- Earth Abides by George R. Stewart (1949) – An early vision of the end of civilization.
- The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (1951) – The original story of teen angst.
- The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway (1952) – What it means to be a man.
- Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury* (1953) – The reason to keep reading.
- Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke* (1953) – An altogether different vision of what humanity may become.
- Lord of the Flies by William Golding (1954) – How quickly we revert to barbarism.
- A Good Man Is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor (1955) – What is meant by Southern gothic and an unflinching picture of the twentieth-century South.
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960) – To further grasp our shameful American history, as seen through the eyes of a child.
- A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. (1960) – Can we overcome our impulse to destroy ourselves?
- Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (1961) – War is not only hell, it’s stupid.
- One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey (1962) – How the systems we create imprison us.
- We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson* (1962) – No one messes with your head better.
- Dune by Frank Herbert (1965) – Still-relevant political commentary in the guise of a terrific space opera.
- Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin (1967) – A study of paranoia that ushered in a new golden age of horror.
- The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin* (1969) – An alien culture sheds light on our assumptions about gender.
- Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut* (1969) – A treatise in how to die. So it goes.
- The Shining by Stephen King* (1977) – The perfect haunted house novel.
- The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (1979) – Humor often leads to truth.
- The Color Purple by Alice Walker (1982) – The lives of black women.
- Neuromancer by William Gibson (1984) – The formative sci-fi novel for the digital age.
- Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry (1985) – The definitive novel of the American West.
- The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood* (1985) – A frightening allegory for the never-ending oppression of women.
- Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card (1986) – How can we truly understand the alien other?
- The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan (1989) – The immigrant’s story, the lives of Asian American women.
- The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (1990) – War is not only stupid, it’s hell.
- The Secret History by Donna Tartt (1992) – The darkness inside us, what we are capable of.
- Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison (1992) – The modern South–it hasn’t changed much.
- Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler* (1993) – A dark vision of a future that could already be happening
- The Shipping News by Annie Proulx (1993) – What it means to form a family.
- The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (1998) – How the West has decimated Africa.
- The Hours by Michael Cunningham* (1998) – Women’s lives and how books shape who we are.
- Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (2002) – How we determine our identity.
- Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell* (2004) – Life is only a story after all.
- Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro* (2005) – Why do we accept without questioning our destinies as they are told to us?
- No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy* (2005) – How the American West has changed.
- Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn (2006) – A darker look into women’s lives.
- The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz (2007) – The curse of family and history.
*These starred authors are exceptionally great. I encourage you to read many more of their works.
This week I’m recommending The Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes, a crime noir classic recently reissued by New York Review Books. A young doctor driving from California to a family wedding in Phoenix, Arizona, sees a teenage girl hitchhiking on a desert road and stops to pick her up, setting in motion a chain of events that will have him suspected of murder when her body turns up a few days later. The “expendable man” of the title refers, of course, to the protagonist, who becomes the wrong man conveniently accused of murder for reasons that the reader is not let in on until about fifty pages into the book.
I’m recommending a hidden classic this week: The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter. Carter gives familiar fairy tales a feminist twist. The stories revolve around the theme of young women (and sometimes men) crossing the threshold into adulthood, generally through sexual experiences. Penguin has some beautiful editions, and this is one of them.
I usually like to get in the Halloween spirit by reading a scary book or two. This year, my top pick is NOS4A2 by Joe Hill. If you like Stephen King, you’ll love this book by his son. Not only does it read like King, but it reads like King at his absolute best–one of those great big books that takes you by the throat and forces you to race through the pages just to find out what happens. NOS4A2 has a Christmas theme, so this one will keep you chilled all through the holidays.
Alternatively, you may go for a classic read this Halloween. I just finished The House on the Borderland by William Hope Hodgson, a short surreal piece that inspired Lovecraft. It’s got pig-people in it. Dracula, Frankenstein, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Edgar Allan Poe are also favorites this time of year. (Here’s my essay on Frankenstein as the first science fiction novel.)
For more Halloween reading ideas, here are my picks for the top 10 scariest books of all time:
- The Shining by Stephen King
- It by Stephen King
- Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
- The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
- The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells
- The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham
- Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin
- Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill
- World War Z by Max Brooks
- The Ruins by Scott Smith
What is the scariest book you’ve read?