(Because I couldn’t get down to 10.)
1. Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace
I was steadfastly opposed to reading this for many, many years. I didn’t want to be the guy in the coffee shop reading War and Peace. But then I succumbed. What is remarkable about the book is not so much its insane length but the strength and clarity of its individual scenes. And I can’t think of a literary character more fully realized than Pierre Bezukhov.
2. Saul Bellow, The Adventures of Augie March
It is meandering, but the sentences are the best of any American novel I can think of.
3. James Joyce, Dubliners
The perfectly constructed short story collection: both at a sentence level and also in terms of scope and trajectory.
4. Elizabeth Strout, Olive Kitteridge
Also utterly brilliantly conceived. Amazing characters. And heartbreaking.
5. Jane Smiley, A Thousand Acres
For someone who has lived in Iowa, and teaches King Lear every year, it’s hard not to be floored by this book.
6. Sinclair Lewis, Babbitt
Had a great time teaching this one a couple of years ago. As I look around for books about America that have something urgent to say I continually come back to this one.
7. Charles Dickens, David Copperfield
An incredible opening. Dickens loves his characters so much, and is so good at plot. Something to learn from on every page, especially if you are trying—like me at the moment—to write a bildungsroman.
8. Joyce Carol Oates, You Must Remember This
Remains my favorite of her books, with its astounding account of a relationship between a 15-year-old and her uncle.
9. Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose
Has to be the best novel written about the American West, right?
10. Jennifer Egan, A Visit From the Goon Squad
Dazzling structure that she somehow makes feel organic. Such a deft touch with characterization, too.
11. John Irving, The World According to Garp
Full of risks and audacity: just such a courageous and funny book.