A while ago—a few years, actually—I shared a list of my top eleven favorite books of all time. Recently I reviewed it, having forgotten it even existed, and I realized how wrongly this reflected my current tastes in literature and the absolute behemoth works of art that have affected me in some way since. So, with this, I hope to mend that and hope that you, as well, will find a recommendation or two to add to your personal list.
The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K Le Guin
“A profound love between two people involves, after all, the power and chance of doing profound hurt.”
Ah, what a delightful surprise this was when reading it for the first time. I, who absolutely have no taste for sci-fi, decided to give its feminist hero a read following her passing. A book concerning an alien planet where its inhabitants have no assigned sex and alternate between genders upon their will, Left Hand chronicles an Earthling who attempts to cultivate a cultural understanding between the two foreign nations and, in the end, discovers the one thing that rings true for all living beings: an instinct for love, for belongingness. The queer themes are just an added pro.
Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov
“You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.”
A controversial choice, sure—but I was very much impacted upon reading Lolita, the classic “banned book” everyone loves to misinterpret. Obviously this is no love story; it is the narrative of a pedophile who, over the course of the victim’s preteen years, chronically preys on and abducts her, tearing her from her family and friends and uprooting her life for his sadistic instincts. It’s an incredibly dark and bleak novel, known for embodying what we know now as the “unreliable narrator.” But it’s Nabokov’s radically empathetic and uncanny ability to understand the actions and behaviors of humans, and especially Americans, in the face of severe threat and adversity that makes this story so lasting.
Gone with the Wind – Margaret Mitchell
“Perhaps—I want the old days back again and they’ll never come back, and I’m haunted by the memory of them and of the world falling about my ears.”
The other week I came across a tweet that made the point of how we laud absolutely massive works of literature by men where their authors almost “show off” in a way—think Joyce’s Ulysses, Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Knausgaard’s My Struggle. And, while there’s nothing wrong with them, where are these same humongous, genius pieces by women? So I’ve embarked on a search to read these, and Gone with the Wind—about the trials and anguishes of debutante Scarlett O’Hara as she fights to survive pre–, mid–, and post–Civil War—was my first venture. At the outset it’s invaluable to know this book is racist; one cannot read it without the intense scrutiny of a critical eye. That being said, when it’s not simply consumed as Southern apologia, it may very well be one of the most human pieces of literature I have ever read. Even more so, it’s one of the very few books that has caused me to cry.
The Golden Notebook – Doris Lessing
“For the truth is, women have this deep instinctive need to build a man up as a man. Molly for instance. I suppose this is because real men become fewer and fewer, and we are frightened, trying to create men.”
Another in my vain search for behemoth books by female geniuses. And this one is by far much more difficult; its structure consists of a novel within four notebooks, within a novel, within another novel, encompassing the mental crackdown of one woman in the mid-nineteenth century. In the end, it’s made me a better feminist and a better Communist. It’s a book that will transport you to every end of the spectrum of human emotion, and it’s one I still ruminate over each day. Many attribute Lessing’s Nobel Prize win to this novel, and I can easily see why.
One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel García Márquez
“The secret of a good old age is simply an honorable pact with solitude.”
Someone recommended this one to me after claiming it had changed their life. And I can confidently confirm that it did, in fact, change mine too. Chronicling the Buendía over seven generations, One Hundred is a meditation on solitude, a yearning for belongingness, a political tour-de-force, a magical realist exposé, and more all in one 400-page novel. García Márquez was actually an author banned from the U.S. for his anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist beliefs, so you know this’ll be a good read. There’s a blurb on the back of my copy that proclaims that this, along with the Book of Genesis, should be required reading for every human being, and I wholeheartedly agree.
Wide Sargasso Sea – Jean Rhys
“There is always another side, always.”
Jean Rhys’ magnum opus is unlike anything I’ve ever read. On one hand, it’s a retelling of Jane Eyre through the perspective of the “madwoman in the attic”; on the other, it’s a postcolonial, feminist exploration of the social forces that bind a person. Many attribute to this novel the rise of postcolonial theory, for what Rhys sets out to do, through multiple narrators, is to examine the exoticism and the isolation of the Other. For its protagonist, Antoinette, embodies the Other: She is always in between, never belonging, and it drives her mad. I’ve read a lot of Modernism, yet this one always strikes me as the most poignant.
The Awakening – Kate Chopin
“She was becoming herself and daily casting aside that fictitious self which we assume like a garment with which to appear before the world.”
Typically I forget how much I completely adore Chopin until I read her all over again. She didn’t produce much other than short stories, yet when I reread my own pieces I can’t help but witness her in every one of my sentences. Her ability to capture the human spirit—how it suppresses desire, identity, and how this contextualizes with a culture—astounds me, and her capacity for such raw honesty in nineteenth century, Southern America is not only something to appreciate, but to celebrate. The Awakening follows one summer in Edna Pontellier’s life as she, through a series of extramarital affairs and a taking up of art, discovers her own female identity within a patriarchal culture. It’s naturalist and it’s feminist, and schools never seem to do it proper justice when it’s taught.
The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”
How can I be a college student of my generation and not list The Bell Jar as one of my favorite books? Plath is not only a genius, but one of the greatest poets of all time, and even if The Bell Jar is the one novel to define her legacy, it’s quite the novel to do so. Yes, it examines how a male-dominated society perceives mentally ill women, but it is also a meditation on life. The novel follows Esther Greenwood through a summer internship in New York, and her consequent breakdown in her hometown outside Boston. She is always balancing her self-assuredness with deep vulnerability, always terrified of her own insecurities and deeply cognizant of societal iniquities, longing to be bigger than she is capable of yet hyperaware of her smallness on such an enormous planet.
The Sound and the Fury – William Faulkner
“It’s not when you realize that nothing can help you—religion, pride, anything—it’s when you realize that you don’t need any aid.”
If you want to talk about bleak novels, this is the definition of one. Faulkner’s Modernist masterpiece documents the fall to ruin of a once Southern aristocratic family, torn apart by their failure to adapt to a constantly changing society. Faulkner is known for his characters—how realistic they are, how they leap off a page—but this novel in particular truly captures that niche of his. From Caddy to Jason to Quentin to Dilsey to Miss Quentin, I can’t seem to shake these characters’ memories from my mind. I’ve always been fascinated with the South, and not only how it grapples with its history, but how its past always finds its way into the present. If you’ve been searching for the Great American Novel, this is it.
The Complete Works – William Shakespeare
“This above all: to thine own self be true.”
If you know me, you also know I can’t have a list of favorite reads and not include Shakespeare. I find with Shakespeare that I learn more about humanity and life than I do in philosophy texts, in self-help guides, in psychology writings. I want to say to people faced with this volume: Here is the wealth of human knowledge. From his tragedies to his comedies to his histories to his poems, Shakespeare is and will always be unmatched for his radical empathy; his works each have lives of their own—they are living, breathing entities, featuring characters from every walk of life. Shakespeare has about covered it all and more, and there is always, always something there to learn—for everyone. If you’re wary of tackling this entire volume, at least read some of my favorites: Antony and Cleopatra, The Taming of the Shrew, Troilus and Cressida, The Merchant of Venice, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Titus Andronicus, King Lear, or The Tempest.
The Neapolitan Novels – Elena Ferrante
“Unlike stories, real life, when it has passed, inclines toward obscurity, not clarity.”
I can’t believe I would lay down my life for an anonymous, eponymous author. For no one knows who Ferrante really is, but most of us know what she has given us. With her Neapolitan Novels, she follows the lifelong friendship of two women from impoverished, postwar Naples, Italy when one of them, in her old age, disappears (or, possibly, runs away), and the other sets to writing their entire lives in novel-form. Sure, this is a series of four volumes, but Ferrante considers it as one large story, and so do I. Never before have I read something so violently personal, so viscerally political, so eloquently written, so psychologically adept, so geographically contained yet so thematically universal. It’s so hard to encapsulate the power of these novels within the space of a short blurb, so what I can offer is this: read it.
painting: “The Yellow Books,” Vincent van Gogh (1887)