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1. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (1851). This sweeping saga of obsession, vanity, and vengeance at sea can be read as a harrowing parable, a gripping adventure story, or a semiscientific chronicle of the whaling industry. No matter, the book rewards patient readers with some of fiction’s most memorable characters, from mad Captain Ahab to the titular white whale that crippled him, from the honorable pagan Queequeg to our insightful narrator/surrogate (“Call me”) Ishmael, to that hell-bent vessel itself, the Pequod.
2. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (1899). In a novella with prose as lush and brooding as its jungle setting, Phillip Marlowe travels to the Belgian Congo to pilot a trading company’s steamship. There he witnesses the brutality of colonial exploitation, epitomized by Kurtz, an enigmatic white ivory trader. To understand evil, Marlowe seeks out Kurtz, whom he finds amongst the natives, dying. After Kurtz laments his own depravity through his final, anguished words—“The horror! The horror!”—Marlowe must decide what to tell his widow back home.
3. Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad (1900). Marlowe, Conrad’s narrator here (as he is in The Heart of Darkness), ironically labels Jim, the disgraced first mate at the center of his tale, “one of us,” meaning the small British colonial elite. However, Jim violates the code one life-defining night when, in a panic, he abandons his sinking ship while the passengers sleep. The ship stays afloat but not Jim’s reputation. Later Marlowe finds the exiled sailor on a remote Indonesian island, where the natives give “Lord Jim” a last chance at self-respect.
4. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (1847). The author’s only novel, published a year before her death, centers on the doomed love between Heathcliff, a tormented orphan, and Catherine Earnshaw, his benefactor’s vain and willful daughter. Passion brings them together, but class differences, and the bitterness it inspires, keeps them apart and continues to take its toll on the next generation. Wuthering Heights tells you why they say that love hurts.
5. Ship of Fools by Katherine Anne Porter (1962). The celebrated miniaturist’s only long fiction, which was thirty years in the making, is a bitter satire depicting a 1931 ocean voyage from Mexico (Veracruz) to Germany (Bremen). Inspired by Sebastian Brant’s fifteenth-century allegory of the same title, it is a portrayal of marital, class, and ethnic conflicts among passengers aboard the ship Vera (“Truth”). These include an ailing doctor, a drug-addicted “Contessa,” various uprooted Americans, gypsy dancers, and twin malevolent children. Praised for its artistry, condemned for its vitriolic anti-German sentiment, Porter’s Odyssey remains a fascinating, infuriating novel.
6. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh (1945). Waugh was one of the twentieth century’s great satirists, yet this novel, widely considered his best, is not satiric. It is, instead, an examination of Roman Catholic faith as it is used, abused, embraced, and rejected by the Flytes, an aristocratic English family visited by alcoholism, adultery, and homoeroticism.
7. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925). Perhaps the most searching fable of the American Dream ever written, this glittering novel of the Jazz Age paints an unforgettable portrait of its day — the flappers, the bootleg gin, the careless, giddy wealth. Self-made millionaire Jay Gatsby, determined to win back the heart of the girl he loved and lost, emerges as an emblem for romantic yearning, and the novel’s narrator, Nick Carroway, brilliantly illuminates the post–World War I end to American innocence.
8. Death in Venice by Thomas Mann (1912). With a skillful use of classical allusion, Mann’s vaguely homoerotic novella describes an aging writer’s platonic infatuation with a beautiful young boy in Venice. Gustav von Aschenbach is a tragic idealist who has dedicated his life to the study and pursuit of high art and beauty. In young Tadzio he recognizes both the embodiment and inevitable transience of perfection in this story of heartrending poignancy.
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. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (1869). Mark Twain supposedly said of this masterpiece, “Tolstoy carelessly neglects to include a boat race.” Everything else is included in this epic novel that revolves around Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812. Tolstoy is as adept at drawing panoramic battle scenes as he is at describing individual feeling in hundreds of characters from all strata of society, but it is his depiction of Prince Andrey, Natasha, and Pierre —who struggle with love and with finding the right way to live —that makes this book beloved.