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Scott Spencer's Top Ten List
1. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1955). “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.” So begins the Russian master’s infamous novel about Humbert Humbert, a middle-aged man who falls madly, obsessively in love with a twelve-year-old “nymphet,” Dolores Haze. So he marries the girl’s mother. When she dies he becomes Lolita’s father. As Humbert describes their car trip —a twisted mockery of the American road novel —Nabokov depicts love, power, and obsession in audacious, shockingly funny language.
2. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (1857). Of the many nineteenth-century novels about adulteresses, only Madame Bovary features a heroine frankly detested by her author. Flaubert battled for five years to complete his meticulous portrait of extramarital romance in the French provinces, and he complained endlessly in letters about his love-starved main character — so inferior, he felt, to himself. In the end, however, he came to peace with her, famously saying, “Madame Bovary: c’est moi.” A model of gorgeous style and perfect characterization, the novel is a testament to how yearning for a higher life both elevates and destroys us.
3. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (1860–61). Dickens gives a twist to an ancient storyline —of the child of royal birth raised in humble surroundings. Looking back on his life, Pip describes his poor youth near marshes in rural England —his chance encounter with a murderous convict, his experiences with the strange Miss Havisham, who always wears a wedding dress, and his love for her beautiful adopted daughter Estella. As he approaches adulthood, Pip learns that he has a secret benefactor who arranges opportunities for him in London, wherein lies the tale, and the twist.
4. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884). Hemingway proclaimed, “All modern American literature comes from . . . ‘Huckleberry Finn.’ ” But one can read it simply as a straightforward adventure story in which two comrades of conve nience, the parentally abused rascal Huck and fugitive slave Jim, escape the laws and conventions of society on a raft trip down the Mississippi. Alternatively, it’s a subversive satire in which Twain uses the only superficially naïve Huck to comment bitingly on the evils of racial bigotry, religious hypocrisy, and capitalist greed he observes in a host of other largely unsympathetic characters. Huck’s climactic decision to “light out for the Territory ahead of the rest” rather than submit to the starched standards of “civilization” reflects a uniquely American strain of individualism and nonconformity stretching from Daniel Boone to Easy Rider.
5. King Lear by William Shakespeare (1605). Considered one of Shakespeare’s four “core tragedies”—with Hamlet, Othello, and Macbeth —King Lear commences with Lear, having achieved great age but little wisdom, dividing his kingdom among his three daughters in return for their proclamations of love for him. Two of his daughters, evil to the core, falsely profess their love, while Cordelia, his good and true daughter, refuses his request. Enraged, Lear gives his kingdom to his evil daughters and banishes Cordelia. Lear pays a dear price for this rash act. The play systematically strips him of his kingdom, title, retainers, clothes, and sanity in a process so cruel and unrelenting as to be nearly unendurable.
6. The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene (1940). In all of Greene’s prolific career, he never surpassed the stark beauty of this tale of a priest who is virtuous despite himself. Set in Mexico during the revolution, when Catholicism was illegal, the novel follows the movements of a character known only as “the whisky priest”—he drinks, he bilks the faithful, he has fathered a child. But as his world narrows and he must make life or death choices, his life becomes a complicated display of salvation.
7. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison (1977). As witty and agile as a folk tale, psychologically acute and colorfully drawn, this novel blends elements of fable and the contemporary novel to depict a young man’s search for identity. In her protagonist, Macon Dead, Morrison created one of her greatest characters, and his reluctant coming of age becomes a comic, mythic, eloquent analysis of self-knowledge and community —how those things can save us, and what happens when they do not.
8. Enemies, A Love Story by Isaac Bashevis Singer (1972). Herman Broder, who survived World War II by hiding in a hayloft for three years, marries the woman who hid him, and he now lives a life of duplicity in 1949 Brooklyn —having an affair, pretending to be a traveling book salesman while really ghostwriting for a rabbi. To top it off, his first wife —a concentration camp survivor who Broder thought was dead —shows up. Enemies is a classic Holocaust survivor tale, filled with guilt, paranoia, a little humor, and raw desperation.
9. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (1877). Anna’s adulterous love affair with Count Vronsky —which follows an inevitable, devastating road from their dizzyingly erotic first encounter at a ball to Anna’s exile from society and her famous, fearful end —is a masterwork of tragic love. What makes the novel so deeply satisfying, though, is how Tolstoy balances the story of Anna’s passion with a second semiautobiographical story of Levin’s spirituality and domesticity. Levin commits his life to simple human values: his marriage to Kitty, his faith in God, and his farming. Tolstoy enchants us with Anna’s sin, then proceeds to educate us with Levin’s virtue.
10. Rabbit Angstrom — Rabbit, Run (1960), Rabbit Redux (1971), Rabbit Is Rich (1981), Rabbit at Rest (1990) — by John Updike. Read as four discrete stories or as a seamless quartet, the Rabbit novels are a tour de force chronicle, critique, and eloquent appreciation of the American white Protestant middle-class male and the swiftly shifting culture around him in the last four decades of the twentieth century. From his feckless youth as a promising high school athlete and unready husband and father in Rabbit, Run; through vulgar affluence, serial infidelity, and guilt as a car dealer in Rabbit Redux; to angry bewilderment over 1970s social upheaval in Rabbit Is Rich, the meaningfully named Rabbit Angstrom gamely tries to keep up with it all, to be a good guy. But the world is too much with, and for, Rabbit, who staggers through literal and metaphorical heart failure before finally falling in Rabbit at Rest.