Top 10 Novels

1. Lolita (Vladimir Nabokov)

The Great American Novel was written by a Russian aristocratic expat, and one of its two main characters is a similar European expat– but then, most of us came here from elsewhere, and until recently, English wasn’t the first language for most Americans. There’s a lot to say about Lolita, but one of the things I want to say is that if you haven’t read it rigorously, you haven’t read it. Many dirty old men taut this book as a celebration of pedophilia and child pornography, but it’s a scathing psychological investigation of a rapist and murderer (I have to constantly remind my students, when they read it, that he’s been institutionalized multiple times and is in jail for murdering another wealthy white man, not for raping an orphaned child). The book covers rarely do the book justice either, as they try to sell it as a “love story” — saying Lolita is a love story is like saying Twin Peaks is a love story. It’s social commentary, it’s a crime novel, it’s a murder mystery… and if it’s a love story, it’s a story of Lolita‘s courageous love for herself (cf. Vera’s diaristic notes, quoted in this review of Chasing Lolita). Runner up: Ada or Ardor.

2. Mrs. Dalloway (Virginia Woolf)

I know Ulysses and The Sound and the Fury are often on these lists, and I love them too, but Mrs. Dalloway is, for me, everything I would have wanted in those other two books. Septimus is what I want from Stephen and Quentin. Mrs. Dalloway is shorter than Ulysses and less fragmented, and I have a short attention span.  I loved reading Ulysses multiple times in undergrad and grad school, but I don’t really want to read it every year. I like that I don’t need a slew of other books to decode Mrs. Dalloway.  Runner up: To the Lighthouse. Although I love re-reading Mrs. Dalloway, I wish I could read To The Lighthouse again for the first time.

3. Wuthering Heights (Emily Brontë)

Creepy. Sadistic. Scorpionic. Class, race, gender politics. It’s all there, evil and delicious.

4. Washington Square (Henry James)

Henry James is such a master: I love What Maisie Knew, The Portrait of a Lady, “Daisy Miller”… really everything, which I read in 2005 in Stockholm, Charlottesville, and Ithaca. If I were to pick one Henry James novel, it would be Washington Square because I think it’s does the most “Henry James stuff” in the least space. (Except maybe “Daisy”, but is that a novel?) … Also what’s with the non-feminist appropriation of James? I see him in this feminist novelist line somewhere between Jane Austen and Joyce Carol Oates.  Move over, old white male academics — this one is ours.

5. The Metamorphosis (Franz Kafka)

I can’t believe I’m putting this at 5. This used to be my automatic answer for “What’s your favorite book?” Everyone should read this. It has something for everyone. It’s very easy to teach. And it’s short.

6. Swann’s Way (Marcel Proust)

I can’t argue with the mastery of In Search of Lost Time, but I can say that I have no desire to read it again, except for Swann’s Way. After Swann’s Way, when reading Proust becomes like a reactivation of his life inside your head, like he’s a parasite who came to eat your brain and reanimate himself in the world, it’s all very interesting, but argh, I have my own life! If you, too, have your own life, and don’t have time to read 7 volumes of someone else’s life, just read Swann’s Way.

7. The Master and Margarita (Mikhail Bulgakov)

Maureen Thorson told me to read this, and when I saw this cover I was convinced because I like cats. This is a delightful, funny, magical book that I wish I could read again for the first time because it gives one the constant joy of new discoveries (plot twists, jokes, magical realism). What can I say about it that won’t spoil it?

8. Hunger (Knut Hamsun)

I read this after it was suggested to me by multiple friends (Michalle Gould and Matt Henriksen), and it’s such a great novel for starving writers. I’d thought Auster and Hustvedt were the ultimate writers of the pomo American starving artist type, but I was wrong, it was the Norwegian writing 120 years ago who really puts the experience of being an egotistical, slightly crazy, starving artist to paper.

9. Their Eyes Were Watching God (Zora Neale Hurston)

I read this in high school, and I read it again in preparation for one of my oral exams at UVA, which was soon after Hurricane Katrina. I’d entirely forgotten that there’s a hurricane in TEWWG. What’s not to like here? — Strong women with sex drives, crazy lousy men you love anyway who drive you to destruction and redemption, hauntingly beautiful descriptions laced with mourning and loss….

10. The Ravishing of Lol Stein (and the other India Cycle books) (Marguerite Duras)

Duras is one of my favorite authors– I love The War, the India Cycle books (and the film India Song), the beaches and heat and jungles (reminds me of growing up in Alabama?) and her treatment of trauma. Although most people who read Duras start with The Lover, and I did too and loved it, there’s a lot of great Duras beyond that. (I like The Lover, but I think it’s problematic, and I don’t think it unveils its problems like Lolita does.)

11. Elective Affinities (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)

12. Sons and Lovers (D.H. Lawrence)

13. Ulysses (James Joyce)

14. Sense and Sensibility (Jane Austen)

15. The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald)

How do you write a Top 10 list? Are these my favorite 10 books or what I would consider the “best” 10? This list started when Michelle Buchanen said it would be interesting to hear my top 10 books, after I’d mentioned wanting the experiencing of reading The Master and Margarita again for the first time.  So this is a combination of: what books do I think everyone should read? What books would I teach? What books were my personal favorites? What books are the “best” (best-written)? And what books do I wish I could read again for the first time?

These favorites stem from the usual kind of education– my k-12 education and self-education reading through “classics,” my college/grad school education of reading just slightly beyond the “canon.” I didn’t include any contemporary fiction, which would be another list. I think there’s a lot of great literature being written these days.

Links are to free .pdfs (if you have a link to a free .pdf or other ebook format for one of the books without a .pdf, or to an alternative translation, lemme know).


About Jessica Smith
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