Or if you like, I can recommend some of my faves to you!
Oh man, this is, like, my FAVORITE GAME. Be glad I kept this as short as it is; I COULD GO ON PRETTY MUCH INDEFINITELY:
- To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf - if you have not read this book, what the fuck are you doing on Tumblr? GET THEE TO THE LIBRARY. Seriously though, it is a perfect book. I don’t even really have anything else to say about it in this small a space. Just read it.
- The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James - this is quite long and when I read it I was really interested in the first two-thirds in an academic way, but wasn’t totally enthralled. The book takes a turn, though, and becomes absolutely stunning, and in retrospect the first two-thirds become equally brilliant and affecting. It is, I promise you, entirely worth reading, even if the beginning feels a bit slow. There is one chapter in particular - if you have read it, you know what I mean; yes, it is good enough that I do not have to say anything else and everybody will know what I mean - that is probably my favorite thing that has ever been written.
- Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro - put quite simply, this book changed my life. I feel a bit weird writing that since it seems simultaneously so cheesy and so hugely significant. But it did. It is, I think, an absolutely remarkable work of fiction on the level of structural conception and execution, and also happens to be the most profound thing I think I’ve ever read about death, and therefore about the human condition. I think about it all the time.
- Middlemarch, George Eliot - I read this book last year and adored it but didn’t think it was going to be a huge game-changer for me. It is probably the most fun of all the books on this list to read, and I enjoyed reading it immensely - but, again, I didn’t necessarily think it was going to become a touchstone. But the shadow this book casts over the culture is really remarkable - it is everywhere, and there are things that she does as a writer that have really informed how I write and serve as constant references for me. But all of that’s not really important, for the purposes of this list: it is truly a joy to read. And that is why you should read it.
- Brooklyn, Colm Tóibín - I read this for the first time a couple of years ago and it affected me in a profound way, though I couldn’t have exactly articulated how. I read it again recently - after being outrageously lucky enough to have him as a professor - and it was almost more powerful the second time, given where I am in my life now. I identified so strongly with the protagonist without realizing why, and I know why now. It’s a very quick read, and it will cut to the core of you, I think. It has that quality.
- The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath - this is a bit predictable, isn’t it? Most artistic teenage girls go through a Sylvia Plath phase. This is another case, though, of me identifying so strongly with a character and not fully understanding why until I was a little older (not that I’m so old and wise now, of course). I have never been depressed or suicidal but certain factors in Esther’s life are very similar to my own, so much so that reading this book can actually be quite upsetting to me. It’s not a perfect book - I read it last year for the first time in quite a while and I saw it more objectively, both as a book and in terms of Esther herself. She’s a nasty piece of work, Esther is. And the book is very much a first book - sadly, an only book - and has to be read backwards as a document of Plath’s life pre-suicide. But oh, it’s so full of fire.
- Atonement, Ian McEwan - one of my favorite things about really great novels is the way that they often manage to make the structure and form of the book reflect its content. Atonement does this so brilliantly it is almost sickening. (Other examples of what I mean would be Never Let Me Go and The Road, which is also pretty amazing.)
- The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald - have you seriously not read this book? If you haven’t, go do yourself a favor and bask in its perfection and the tragedy of America.
- A Separate Peace, John Knowles - I am going to make this into a movie one day, so you might as well get on top of reading it now. This is something they make everybody read as freshmen in high school in the US and nobody talks about how it’s actually about the tragedy of repressed homosexuality. But it is! It’s not even subtle, guys. There’s a scene where the protagonist slowly takes off his sweat-drenched clothes while his roommate stares at him. SUBTLE IS REALLY NOT THE WORD I WOULD USE TO DESCRIBE THIS SITUATION.
- His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman - of all the series of books I read and loved when I was a kid, these have stuck with me the most. They have so much to say about life that is really profound and as an atheist they were really formative for me. Which isn’t to say that they changed my mind about anything, just reinforced what I already (even at such a young age) believed. They’re not especially proselytizing, though, which is another of their strengths. Also, best alternative universe ever, or what? (I just really want a dæmon, guys.)
- Fire and Hemlock, Diana Wynne Jones - nobody knows this book, which is a real shame because I think it’s her best, at least of what I’ve read (and I went through a phase in middle school where I read everything of hers at the public library, which was… most of them). It’s not really a book for children, or not solely a book for children - and the vision of childhood and adolescence it presents is much crueler and more real than most books written for young people. I come back to this book every couple of years and it only gets better every time I read it. (I’m also going to adapt this one day; you heard it here first.)