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1. Casa Guidi Windows by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1851). The first part of this two-thousand-line poem, composed in 1847, reveals Browning’s excitement at the independence she and husband Robert found in Florence. The second part, written after Austria’s reoccupation of Tuscany, is a more reflective, yet still hopeful, meditation on the streets outside the Browning home, Casa Guidi: “This world has no perdition, if some loss.” Casa Guidi and its companion poems argue strongly for the right of women to speak on matters of politics and state, not just the moral affairs of the home.
2. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (1847). Like Wuthering Heights, this is a romance set in the isolated moors of rural England the Brontës called home. Its title character is an exceptionally independent orphan who becomes governess to the children of an appealing but troubled character, Mr. Rochester. As their love develops, the author introduces a host of memorable characters and a shattering secret before sending Jane on yet another arduous journey.
3. The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein (1964). This parable about the parent–child bond features an apple tree that gives and gives and a boy who takes and takes. As the boy matures, his needs become harder to meet. But the tree never fails, ultimately sacrificing life and limb. Silverstein, who also illustrated this children’s book, casts no moral judgments in this open-ended tale that concludes with the boy, now an old man, sitting on all that’s left of the tree, a stump: “And the tree was happy.”
4. Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White (1952). If cats have nine lives, pigs have two —at least Wilbur did. First he is saved by eight-year-old Fern, who can talk to animals; then he is rescued by a wise spider named Charlotte, who spins a web that convinces people Wilbur is “Some Pig.” This clever, gentle, and funny children’s book offers much wisdom on life, death, and friendship before ending on a five-hankie note.
5. Bertha (1959) and George Washington Crosses the Delaware (1962), two plays by Kenneth Koch. These two plays about the exuberance of war are from the renowned New York School poet who said his dramatic influences included Shakespeare’s chronicle plays, Alfred Jarry’s parody of Macbeth, Ubi Roi, the experimental music of John Cage, and A Visit from Saint Nicholas by Clement Moore. Koch’s plays are brief, abrupt, language-centered, and childlike in their wonderment and humor, often undercutting heroic stances with a joke but always striving to capture what the playwright called “Dionysiac things.”
6. Blithe Spirit by Noël Coward (1941). As the Nazis bore down on Britain, Coward filled London theaters with this gay and witty farce about death. The sublime silliness begins when a writer holds a séance to research his novel on a murderous fake psychic. Who should appear but his first wife, dead these six years and none too happy about wife number two.
7. Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller (1949). A broken Everyman, Willy Loman is about to be fired from his job as a traveling shoe salesman. In response he clings to fantasies —that he is “well liked” and that his troubled sons, Hap and Biff, are bound for greatness. A withering assault on the American Dream, the play is an affecting portrait of a man unable to understand the forces that have shaped his life.
8. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813). “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife,” reads this novel’s famous opening line. This matching of wife to single man —or good fortune —makes up the plot of perhaps the happiest, smartest romance ever written. Austen’s genius was to make Elizabeth Bennet a reluctant, sometimes crabby equal to her Mr. Darcy, making Pride and Prejudice as much a battle of wits as it is a love story.
9. Sullivan’s Travels (1941), The Lady Eve (1941), and The Palm Beach Story (1942), three screenplays by Preston Sturges. Sturges enjoyed one of the great comic runs in Hollywood history while the world was at war. A master of sparkling dialogue, he revealed the zany absurdity of American life in the twelve pictures he wrote and/or directed from 1940 to 1944, especially these three classics that feature, respectively, a runaway director, a brilliant female con artist, and a runaway heiress.
10. When I Grow Too Old to Dream, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein (1935). Hammerstein’s credits are a history of the American musical, including Oklahoma, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I, and The Sound of Music. He wrote this sweet love song, which has been recorded by everyone from Nelson Eddy to Nat King Cole to Doris Day, for the film The Night Is Too Young. The singer asks for a parting kiss, then adds, “And when I grow too old to dream / That kiss will live in my heart.”