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1. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1866). In the peak heat of a St. Petersburg summer, an erstwhile university student, Raskolnikov, commits literature’s most famous fictional crime, bludgeoning a pawnbroker and her sister with an axe. What follows is a psychological chess match between Raskolnikov and a wily detective that moves toward a form of redemption for our antihero. Relentlessly philosophical and psychological, Crime and Punishment tackles freedom and strength, suffering and madness, illness and fate, and the pressures of the modern urban world on the soul, while asking if “great men” have license to forge their own moral codes.
2. Macbeth by William Shakespeare (1606). The shortest of Shakespeare’s tragedies, Macbeth runs along at breakneck speed, elevating Macbeth from Thane of Glamis to Thane of Cawdor to King of Scotland in two brief acts. It explores the psychology of ambition, abetted by supernatural forces, as Macbeth and his wife — one of the few successful marriages in the Shakespearean canon — engineer the murder of King Duncan and Macbeth’s usurpation of the Scottish throne. The pleasures of kingship are rare and brief, however, as the past comes to haunt the future, in ways obscurely prophesied by three witches, and Macbeth is brought down with a terrible swiftness matched only by the speed of his ascent.
3. The Odyssey by Homer (ninth century b.c.e.?). Where The Iliad tells of war, The Odyssey is the story of survival and reconciliation following the ten-year battle with Troy. Where Achilles was defined by warrior brutality, Odysseus, King of Ithaca, is defined by his intelligence and wit. This epic poem follows Odysseus on his adventures as he struggles —against the threats of sea monsters and the temptation of the sirens’ song —to be reunited with his son Telemachus, his faithful, clever queen Penelope, and their kingdom.
4. The Trial by Franz Kafka (1925). The Trial is not just a book, but a cultural icon; Kafka is not just a writer but a mindset—“Kafkaesque.” Here, Everyman Josef K is persecuted by a mysterious and sadistic Law, which has condemned him in advance for a crime of which he knows nothing. Modern anxieties are given near-archetypal form in this parable that seems both to foretell the totalitarian societies to come and to mourn our alienation from a terrible Old Testament God.
5. Impressions of Africa by Raymond Roussel (1910). The masterpiece of one of France’s leading experimental writers, this novel begins with the shipwreck of a band of Europeans held for ransom in a mythical African kingdom. As they await their release, each displays a theatrical or technical skill to be showcased at a gala ball. In the novel’s second half, Roussel describes how the characters developed these surprising skills in pun-filled, allusion-fueled prose.
6. The Waves by Virginia Woolf (1931). This grand experiment in narrative depicts six characters —from nursery school to the brink of old age —through a series of interior soliloquies. Stages in their lives are framed by bits of description of a day on a deserted beach; the book’s finale, their reunion at a London restaurant, is a tour de force. “The light of civilization is burnt out,” one character thinks while gazing at London’s night sky in this haunting, poetic meditation on time’s passage.
7. Correction by Thomas Bernhard (1975). This dense philosophic novel consisting of two long paragraphs begins with the suicide of an Austrian scientist named Roithamer. As his childhood friend (and our nameless narrator) remembers him and sorts through his papers, we learn about an unhappy man who built a protective Cone in a local forest to provide his sister “supreme happiness.” Instead it leads to her death. Roithamer’s papers are defined by incessant revisions; his “corrections” deny all that came before; his last act emerges as his final correction.
8. Stories and Texts for Nothing by Samuel Beckett (1955). The Nobel Prize–winning playwright’s fiction shares the elliptical, elusive qualities of his celebrated dramas Waiting for Godot and Endgame. The Stories are bitterly comic acknowledgments of sexual failure and mortality (such as the masterly “Assumption”) that clearly foreshadow the later Texts for Nothing. These thirteen non-narrative prose pieces are fatalistic outcries uttered by moribund outcasts awaiting oblivion: the resigned, the dying, and the dead —all saved from meaninglessness by the grave, eloquent music of a measured style that redeems, even as it snatches away, their humanity.
9. Metamorphoses by Ovid (8 c.e.). Shining through Ovid’s poetic encyclopedia of myths involving the transformations of gods and humans is this Heraclitean truth: existence is change. His versions of Orpheus, Narcissus, Pygmalion, and Hercules have been etched in our collective memory. Yet he was, as a critic once said, “counter-classical”—fun rather than imperial, personal rather than grave. Of all the Latin authors, Ovid, who also wrote a sex manual, is the one who never once reminds you of a marble bust.
10. Stories of Flannery O’Connor (1925–64). Full of violence, mordant comedy, and a fierce Catholic vision that is bent on human salvation at any cost, Flannery O’Connor’s stories are like no others. Bigots, intellectual snobs, shyster preachers, and crazed religious seers —a full cavalcade of what critics came to call “grotesques”—careen through her tales, and O’Connor gleefully displays the moral inadequacy of all of them. Twentieth-century short stories often focus on tiny moments, but O’Connor’s stories, with their unswerving eye for vanity and their profound sense of the sacred, feel immense.