The Name of the Rose
Ba-ya-ya ba-da ba-ya-ya-ya, ba-ya-ya / Ba-ya-ya ba-da ba-ya-ya-yaaaaaaaah. Wait, what? Oh, THE NAME OF the Rose? Ha ha, I guess I was thinking of the classic Seal tune “Kiss from a Rose” (as usual). You can see how I made that mistake. Ha ha ha…where was I? OH. The Name of the Rose, OK. At first glance this might not seem like something I’d usually talk up to my Roox. I mean, there are basically no women in it, blargarlarghlll. But this novel is really funny and complex, and a great mystery to boot. Set in 1327, Umberto Eco’s masterpiece tells of an English monk and his novice who investigate a spate of murders at an Italian abbey. Eco recreates medieval Italy with playful intertextuality (although the many untranslated Latin quotes challenged my patience for sure) and varied detail (including cool maps of the monastery and its astounding library). His characters, in particular, are wonderful, and they all have their peculiar secrets. Poison! Philosophy! Postmodernism! All this and more in one of my favorite whodunits of all time. —Estelle
In Search of Lost Time
1913-1927; 2003, Modern Library
The problem with Proust, or Marcel to you and I, is that he’s unjustly become a sort of byword for pretension or high-falutin’ worthiness. A seven volume (SEVEN!) life’s work of a novel, written by a sickly and rather neurotic nineteenth century Parisian aristocrat? Mais oui! This rep though, really gets in the way of the basic truth of In Search of Lost Time, which is that it’s one of the most pleasurable reading experiences possible—so addictive and enriching that Virginia Woolf called it, “my greatest adventure.” Long, lushly curving sentences carry you through our narrator’s processes of perception from his rural French childhood to an adulthood in high society—whose absurdities, by the way, he skewers supremely. The time I’m losing (it’s basically a year-long project undertaken with some fellow nerds) to In Search of Lost Time is time I’m happy never to get back. Because the greatest thing about finishing Lydia Davis’ translation of volume one, Swann’s Way, isn’t the satisfaction of slamming a three pound book down on your nearest surface and quietly saying “boom” to yourself: it’s knowing that you have another six volumes ahead of you. —Hermione
The Lord of the Rings
1954; 2005, Mariner Books
My first ever copy of The Lord Of The Rings had a blurb announcing that there are two kinds of people in the world—those who have read The Lord of the Rings, and those who are going to. A few chapters in, I understood why; I was transfixed. This vast story begins in the cosy, pre-industrial idyll of Hobbiton and moves into a fantastic landscape of mythical creatures, medieval warriors, and impregnable towers. Tolkien sketches his characters lovingly, but if the books only focused on Frodo’s heroism, Aragorn’s nobility, and Gandalf’s wisdom, it would make for exceedingly dull reading. It’s the supporting cast that makes the text live and breathe with an immediacy that’s remained fresh over decades. Clumsy, carefree Pippin who can never get anything right until he does; Eowyn the Shieldmaiden’s admirable courage; Smeagol/Gollum who’s not quite an antihero yet draws the reader’s empathy all the same in his indelible tragedy.
In the Preface, Tolkien famously mentions that his book had “grown in the telling.” That growth has only continued since its publication: The Lord of the Rings is not just the epic of England that Tolkien set out to write, it’s a modern epic that has influenced popular film, literature, and song. Yet, if I have a complaint 14 years since my first journey to Middle Earth, it involves the subtle, and not so subtle, racism that pervades not just this book but Tolkien’s entire corpus. The overweening whiteness of his characters and the repeated opposition of light and dark from which Tolkien draws his moral conclusions is hard to overlook. As a brown woman reading LOTR I find myself having to navigate an analytic journey alongside the fellowship. Curiously enough, I love the book no less. Perhaps because Tolkien’s rich and intricate universe provides unlimited scope for molding. After all, even if a mythos posits itself as a genuine history, it’s also a history that can be filled in, retold, made richer and more complete. And with the invaluable contributions of fan communities to the expansion of Ardaverse, it can justly be said that The Lord Of The Rings has grown in the telling, far beyond what its author could ever have conceived. —Ragini
1922; 1986, Vintage
If I had a dime for every time I’ve begun Ulysses without finishing it, I’d have mustered enough wealth to purchase my dream home (a mansion consisting entirely of lavender-infused treats). Often ranked one of the best novels of the 20th century, Ulysses is also regarded as one of the most difficult books to finish. James Joyce once told his French translator that he “put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what [he] meant.” This seemingly never-ending novel is a struggle to tackle with it’s difficult vocabulary, unique structure, and many paradoxes. While my intentions for reading Ulysses were not pure (I wanted to brag about finishing it more than I wanted to consume a Very Important Piece of Literature), I was surprised to eventually find myself enjoying the process. If you’ve been dancing around the idea of reading and finishing (very important part!) Ulysses I’d recommend a thorough look at the book along with a reader’s guide that helps make sense of the book’s various “episodes.” —Mads
Karl Ove Knausgaard
2009–2011, Farrar, Straus and Giroux
If you like winding portrayals of “real life” in books (Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?, Marcel Proust, Sylvia Plath), you might like Karl Ove Knausgaard’s autobiographical novel My Struggle. I say might because getting through a six-volume novel of 3,600 pages is a lot to ask of any reader. For me, its length felt like a challenge: Can I pull off reading this? Can he pull off keeping my interest for so long? Although I was initially put off by the controversial title and the eye-roll inducing audacity of a dude writing down every detail of his own life, to date I’ve read three of the four volumes currently translated into English (Knausgaard writes in his native Norwegian).
The books reflect on signal moments in the protagonist’s life—his father’s death, his marriage, his childhood—but in the telling the story meanders all over the place. A memory of a childhood supper skips ahead to a funeral and then morphs into an essay about art. Reading My Struggle is like flipping through the pages of a diary: There are boring parts but every time you mean to stop reading, the growing atmosphere of another scene, another moment, pulls you in detail by detail, and another 100 pages have passed. When Knausgaard writes about being a teen sitting up in his room in the dark Norwegian evenings, cold outside but warm and bright in his house, the particular sound of his father’s footsteps on the stairs, the happiness of listening to a favorite record, I am there with him. When he writes about a complicated plan to sneak beers into a New Year’s party—the anxiety and excitement of it—I am there with him. I forget I am just reading; I am existing alongside him, a shadow presence. —Monika
1985, Simon & Schuster
People often say of books “it’s impossible to put down,” but Lonesome Dove is painful to put down, which is why this masterpiece is best ingested during summer when you have fewer restraints on your time. This tale of pioneering and cowboy spirit boasts characters so real, writing so readable and beautiful and funny and gut-wrenching that you’d be mad if you had to set it aside to read a textbook. So don’t. Read it during the summer. You know that thing in books and movies where there are a bunch parallel storylines going on and you’re like, “How is this all going to come together?” Lonesome Dove does this more perfectly than any story ever told. There are fierce female leads, epic journeys through strange lands, romance, and sex (not always of the sexy variety, either), and entire lives lived within its pages. Just read this book and your life will be richer for it, I promise. —Jane Marie
War and Peace
1869; 2010, Oxford World’s Classics
War and Peace is one of the longest novels ever published—my paperback edition has 1,440 pages. It’s divided into four parts (plus a two-part epilogue) and I was assigned to read part one for a college course one spring. My friend and I resolved to read the whole thing even if it took us the entire summer (which it did). This was partially because we are overachieving completists, but mainly because we were SO sucked into the world of aristocratic Russia in the early 1800s. I mean, the book starts with a grand soiree thrown by the closest confidant of the queen where we meet the central character of the book, Pierre Bezukov. He’s the illegitimate son of a dying count, who was educated abroad and feels quite out of place upon his return to Saint Petersburg—though when he comes into money, everyone is suddenly very eager to accept him.
Meanwhile, in Moscow, 13-year-old Natasha Rostov, my favorite character, is living with her parents, also aristocracy, but forever struggling to keep up financially, and she’s in love with a boy who is about to head off to the army. As you can guess from the title, one of the central conflicts of the book is the war between the Russians and the French that comes to a head when Napoleon invades Russia in 1812. However, I will admit that not being much of a war buff, I kinda skimmed through the really battle heavy parts to get back to the family drama, especially the story of Natasha, her romances, and her personal battles through a tumultuous adolescence and coming of age. There are five families, so I’m not even scratching the surface with the characters I’m mentioning. Tolstoy has such a gift for bringing you right into the heart of the battlefield or an elegant soiree that reading this book is like binge-watching five seasons of a great historical drama. —Stephanie
Miguel de Cervantes, translated by Edith Grossman
1612/16; 2005, Harper Perennial
Don Quixote is MAD OLD. Like, over 400 years old. But it still contains many of the elements we modernes readerz look for in literature today. Rrrrrrrromance. Goatherds! Insults. Someone pooping himself! Multiple times! Do you even need more information before you get started? If you do: This Spanish classic is concerned with the travails of one Don Quixote, who at the tender age of 49 decides small-town life no longer satisfies him. So he dusts off his great-grandfather’s armor and sets off on adventures. Literary critics and academics often call Don Quixote important because it is one of the first examples of the novel as we know it. But I appreciate it because its story is one of radical self-reinvention and a refusal to conform to societal expectations. I will say that some aspects of the tale are pretty terrible—there’s a lot of gratuitous violence, and classism, and ableism. But it’s an astonishing example of a protagonist seeming to create a boundless world for us to see, simply by encountering it and engaging with it. Plus, it gave us the word “quixotic,” for which we should all daily give thanks. —Estelle
David Foster Wallace
1996, Little, Brown and Company
I’m about to attempt to do something really difficult, and that is explain the plot of Infinite Jest. OK. There is an eccentric family. The father is an experimental filmmaker who opened a tennis school for children. His youngest son is a tennis champ and linguistics prodigy who memorizes the dictionary for fun. The tennis academy is near a halfway house for people with addictions. There is missing video, the contents of which are unknown. There is a group of dangerous Canadian radicals who are trying to track down this video to use as a weapon because, oh, right, this is a version of the near future in which all of North America has been turned into one giant unified state and the calendar years have been subsidized by corporations.
In other words, it is a very dense, very ambitious novel in which an entirely new world is created. Ask 10 different Infinite Jest fans to explain what it is about, and you will get 10 different answers. Me, I really connected to the way that Wallace depicts the depravity of loneliness in the middle of all this chaos. There are dozens of little tangents and subplots and side stories throughout the book, each one filled with moments that sum up how strange and weird and beautiful life is. I became way more absorbed in those pages than in the plot as a whole. The book wormed its way into my head until I woke up earlier than usual and went to bed later than usual so that I could have more time with it, until every second I spent not reading it felt like a waste. I finished Infinite Jest after three days of pretty much nonstop reading, and by then my head was hurting and my eyesight was a blur. I did the only thing I knew I could do: flipped back to the beginning, and started it again. —Anna F.
Homer, translated by Richmond Lattimore
2007, Harper Perennial Modern Classics
The Odyssey is a long-ass poem, and it’s really really old. It’s attributed to Homer, a man the Ancient Greeks really dug. Maybe the coolest thing about The Odyssey is that it’s survived so long and is still read today, hundreds of years after it was first popular. But the stories in it are also pretty wild. It follows the hero Odysseus, who is trying to get home to Ithaca after the Trojan War (the war is the subject of The Illiad). The story is told using flashbacks, and it switches between Odysseus basically boasting about his own survival skills, and his home, where his wife Penelope is trying to survive without him.
The goddess Athena, who takes it upon herself to guide Odysseus, is my favourite character. She is a master of disguises and can take on any form, which brings me to The Odyssey‘s abundance of magical creatures. All those mythical creatures you might be already aware of? They started here. The Sirens, who lure men to their deaths by singing; the Lotus-Eaters who basically get high on a plant all day, every day; and Cyclops, the one-eyed giant. The Odyssey also takes on very serious human quandaries: Home and family, and the importance of getting back to it; the question of gender, Athena is both male and female; and the love between Penelope and Odysseus, just how real is it? After all, Odysseus spends seven years with the nymph Calypso but Penelope is expected to stay chaste and faithful while not knowing whether her husband is dead or alive. These questions, among many others, make Homer’s Odyssey intrinsically fascinating. —Naomi
A Song of Ice and Fire
George RR Martin
1996– , Bantam Books
This epic fantasy series is comprised of five books: A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, A Feast for Crows, and A Dance with Dragons (with two more books to come). Each of the five novels numbers over 800 pages, and with over 1.7 million words, it is one of the longest fiction series’ ever written. The books tell the story of power struggles between noble houses in the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros and Essos. In this medieval fantasy world, each house is determined to seize the Iron Throne, hence the dazzling battle sequences, magical creatures, and prophecies galore.
Reading this series is a PROJECT. Only a few of the multiple and dense storylines intersect at any given time and there are over 1,000 named characters (some with aliases!) to keep track of. But Martin’s crystal, detailed prose that makes it so that Westeros feels like a real place, with all of the beauty and heartache of our own world…plus dragons! I became so devoted to the tales of Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen, and Arya Stark that, over the course of six months, I feverishly read the books every day on the train, during my lunch hour, and every free moment I had. Before you dive into the series know that it contains a lot of sexual violence and misogyny and as much as I enjoy these books, it’s also perfectly legit to avoid them on those grounds, or to at least approach them with critical caution. —Meagan
2013, Little Brown & Co.
Here is everything that I understand about the Zodiac: I was born in early May, which means that I am something called a “Taurus,” and whenever stuff goes wrong in my life I like to blame it on “Mercury in retrograde,” regardless of the time of year. Eleanor Catton understands the Zodiac way better than I do, and she has used it as a really clever structure for her magnum opus.
It’s late 19th century New Zealand. Walter Moody, a prospector who has just arrived to town in the hopes of striking gold, enters a hotel, where 12 men of different backgrounds and professions are puzzling out a series of mysterious events, which include a suicide attempt and the discovery of a small fortune. The men are there to corroborate their stories, and the novel shifts between their perspectives on the events. This is where it gets neat: Each man is assigned a zodiac sign, and the interactions of the characters mimic the positions of the stars and planets in the night sky. Do you need to understand all that to get into the story? Not at all—many of the book’s mechanics went over my head as I read it, and it wasn’t until some nice strangers on the Internet explained this to me that I was able to kind of appreciate it (thanks, internet strangers!). The Luminaries is a plot-heavy page-turner, an homage to massive Victorian novels. —Anna F.
Almanac of the Dead
Leslie Marmon Silko
There is a lot of raw ugliness in this story—racism, misogyny, homophobia, arms trading, drug dealing, murder, sexual violence, even black market organ selling. That’s the world that Seese is living in when her baby is kidnapped. In order to find him, she seeks out a celebrity psychic named Lecha, a Yaqui Indian woman living outside Tucson. Seese begins to work with Lecha on transcribing an ancient manuscript which foretells the end of the world—or at least the world as we know it—filled with crime and greed and ruled by white people. Almanac of the Dead is a story of many, many characters and that makes it a tough read because it is also non-linear and weaves a number of plots, subplots, and mythologies. What holds it together is its setting in the American Southwest and Mexico, and its focus on how capitalism destroys and disenfranchises people, especially those native to the Southwest. This is a story about the evil people (especially white men) do and a search for spiritual justice; it’s a powerful, honest portrait of America. —Stephanie
Louisa May Alcott
1868-9; 1983, Bantam Classics
I first read Little Women in fourth grade; it was so captivating and exciting that I spent the whole day powering through it until I finally discovered who ended up with who (this wasn’t the point of the book, but still). Little Women treats the lives of four sisters—Jo, Meg, Beth, and Amy—and their various lovers, friends, missteps, and celebrations. I fell in love with Jo right away, and I still think of her fondly as one of my book-soulmates (how I refer to characters in books to whom I feel very connected). Jo is a general kick-ass whirlwind who cuts off and sells her hair when her family needs some money, and can never keep her evening gloves clean. But each of the sisters is compelling in her own right. Meg is the nicest and toughest sister—one of those secretly tough types—and she has a tender love affair. Amy and Beth both managed to surprise me, too. I’ve re-read this book many times over the years, whenever I needed a long, pleasant read to fill me with nostalgia and the good kind of treacly-ness. It’s funny how much Little Women has changed as I have: The words stay the same, but the book evolves with me, and I find something charming and new about it every single time I read. —Tova
A Little Life
A Little Life starts off delightfully. Four best friends from college—Willem, Malcolm, JB, and Jude—have moved to New York, anxious to start their careers in their dream fields of acting, architecture, art, and law respectively. Young and idealistic in the big city, they don’t know what adventures life has in store for them. “Hmmm, what a lovely story,” I said after the first 20 pages, having started the book knowing nothing about the plot. “I can’t wait to get lost in this ripping tale over the summer!” BUT THEN!!!! Yanagihara slowly reveals the backstories of the four characters, and we learn that one of them had a brutal upbringing, filled with abuse and traumatic events that I don’t want to spoil for you, but please consider this a trigger warning. A Little Life is not a jaunty little story about four best friends trying to make it in the big city; it’s a beautifully written, tender, and terrifying exploration of PTSD, survival, resilience, self-destruction, and, yes, friendship. —Anna F. ♦