A Questioner's Guide to literature

It is an unavoidable fact in life that if you want to write you must first read. Countless published writers will tell enthusiastic but unpublished advice-seekers about the importance of reading.

The next logical question is a variation of what, or how. The classics of literature are so often housed in a bookstore section repellent because of the very imposing nature of their name, or the ugly style of their re-edition.

Faced with this understandable dissuasion, I would argue that it is best to go after the classics armed with a list. For one thing, a list is finite; you can start wherever you like and cross things off as you try them. For another, you have a suggestion as to which translator will be most agreeable, as in the case of the Russians. And finally, a list can travel with you anywhere, be it online, or in your wallet as you pull it out to compare titles at the second-hand bookstore in your neighbourhood. These places are usually stuffed with classics and you would be doing them a real favour of liberating some shelf space, while getting the sound of “good sentences in your ears” as Jane Kenyan would say. How about we get to it?

This list comes from Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose. I would say that it's the actual first recommendation, a beautiful and easy 268 page motivational answer to the question "why should I read?".

Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, translated by M. Kuwata and Tashaki Kojima (Done! See here)

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (Done! See here)

The Song of Roland by Anonymous, translated by Dorothy L. Sayers

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen (Done! See here)

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (Done! See here)

The Collected Stories by Isaac Babel, translated by Walter Morrison (Done! See here)

Vintage Baldwin by James Baldwin

Cousin Bette by Honoré de Balzac, translated by Kathleen Raine (Done! See here)

Sixty Stories by Donald Barthelme (Done! See here)

Believers: A Novella and Stories by Charles Baxter

The Complete Short Prose, 1929-1989 by Samuel Beckett

The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen

Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles (Done! See here)

Paul Bowles: Collected Stories and Later Writings by Paul Bowles

Stories in an Almost Classical Mode by Harold Brodkey

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (Done! See here)

Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino

Where I'm Calling From: Selected Stories by Raymond Carver (Done! See here)

Cathedral by Raymond Carver (Done! See here)

Don Quixote by Miguel De Cervantes, translated by Tobias Smollett

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

The Stories of John Cheever by John Cheever

A Life in Letters by Anton Chekhov, translated by Constance Garnett

Tales of Anton Chekhov: Volumes 1-13 by Anton Chekhov, translated by Constance Garnett

Drown by Junot Diaz

Bleak House by Charles Dickens

Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens (Done! See here)

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, translated by Constance Garnett

I Sailed With Magellan by Stuart Dybek (Done! See here)

The Stories (So Far) of Deborah Eisenberg by Deborah Eisenberg

Middlemarch by George Eliot

Searches and Seizures by Stanley Elkin

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (Done! See here)

Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald (Done! See here)

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert, translated by Geoffrey Wall

A Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert, translated by Robert Baldick

Desperate Characters by Paula Fox with an introduction by Jonathan Franzen (Done! See here)

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen (Done! See here)

Paris Stories by Mavis Gallant (Done! See here)

The Recognitions by William Gaddis

The Wonders of the Invisible World: Stories by David Gates

Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon

Dead Souls: A Novel by Nikolai Gogol, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

Doting by Henry Green

Loving by Henry Green

The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley (Done! See here)

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

Selected Poems by Zbigniew Herbert, translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Peter Dale Scott

The Portrait of A Lady by Henry James

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

Pictures From An Institution by Randall Jarrell

Angles by Denis Johnson

Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson

Le Divorce by Diane Johnson

Persian Nights by Diane Johnson

The Life of Savage by Samuel Johnson

The Judgement by Franz Kafka, translated by Malcolm Pasley

The Penal Colony by Franz Kafka, translated by Malcolm Pasley

Metamorphosis and Other Stories by Franz Kafka, translated by Malcolm Pasley

A Perfect Spy by John Le Carré

Hope Against Hope: A Memoir by Nadezdha Mandelstam

Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield by Katherine Mansfield (Done! See here)

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, translated by Gregory Rabassa (Done! See here)

The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, translated by Gregory Rabassa

Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney (Done! See here)

Bartelby the Scrivener and Benito Cereno by Herman Melville

Moby Dick by Herman Melville (Done! See here)

Paradise Lost by John Milton

Lectures on Russian Literature by Vladimir Nabokov

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer

Years of Hope: The Story of a Life by Konstantin Paustovsky, translated by Joseph Barnes

Freedomland by Richard Price

Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon

Pamela: Or Virtue Rewarded by Samuel Richardson

American Pastoral by Philip Roth (Done! See here.)

Novels and Stories 1959-1962 by Philip Roth

Pedro Paramo by Juan Rulfo, translated by Margaret Sayers Peden

Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger

The Russian Debutant's Book by Gary Shteyngard

Oedipus Rex by Sophocles, translated by Sir George Young

A Ship Made of Paper by Scott Spencer

Mother's Milk by Edward St-Aubyn (Done! See here)

Some Hope: A Trilogy by Edward St-Aubyn

The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead

Flaubert and Madam Bovary: A Double Portrait by Francis Steegmuller

The Autobiography of Alice B. Tocklas by Gertrude Stein

The Red and the Black by Stendhal, translated by Roger Gard

Plot It Yourself by Rex Stout

A Summons To Memphis by Peter Taylor

Sleepwalker in a Fog by Tatyana Tolstaya

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Constance Garnett

The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Aylmer Maude

The Kreutzer Sonata and Other Stories by Leo Tolstoy, translated by David McDuff

Resurrection by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Rosemary Edmonds

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Constance Garnett (Done! See here.)

The Children of Dynmouth by William Trevor

The Collected Stories by William Trevor

Fools of Fortune by William Trevor

First Love by Ivan Sergeevich Turgenev, translated by Isaiah Berlin

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

The Marquise of O- and Other Stories by Heinrich von Kleist, translated by Martin Greenberg, preface by Thomas Mann

I'm Losing You by Bruce Wagner

The Birds Fall Down by Rebecca West

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia by Rebecca West

Escapes by Joy Williams

Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief by James Woods

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates