1. A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens
Spectral visitors take miserly businessman Ebenezer Scrooge on a tour of the past, present, and future to prompt his reevaluation of the wisdom of his skinflint ways in this Victorian fantasy that helped usher in the nostalgia-drenched Christmas tradition. To this day, innumerable stage adaptations knock elbows with ballet productions of The Nutracker Suite and singing of Handel’s Messiah. Dickens’s Hard Times is another relatively quick read.
2. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain
The intrepid young hero, a half-feral but good-hearted boy, flees the deadly embrace of civilization, takes up with a freed slave and a couple of con men, and, with the assistance of one Samuel Langhorne Clemens, makes a library’s worth of observations about the human condition in one thin volume — a triumphant survivor of censorship and political correctness. (The n-word pervades it — quick, hide the children’s eyes and make reality go away!) See also The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which this book is a sequel to, and Pudd’nhead Wilson.
3. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll
A young girl wanders into the woods and falls down a rabbit hole into a disconcertingly absurd hidden world in Oxford mathematician Charles Lutwidge Dodgson’s satirical romp, laced with contemporary caricatures and poking at problems of mathematical logic. Like many great works of art, it was a critical failure but a popular success — and, in the long term, the critics have come around. See also the sequel Through the Looking-Glass.
4. Animal Farm, by George Orwell
A modern fable by the author of Nineteen Eighty-Four relates what happens when communism comes to Manor Farm: “All animals are created equal, but some are more equal than others.” Orwell (birth name Eric Blair), a proponent of democratic socialism — by definition, the antithesis of Stalinism — wrote the story in response to his disillusioning experiences during the Spanish Civil War, when totalitarianism cast a shadow over socialist ideals. British publishers concerned about the manuscript’s frank condemnation of the United Kingdom’s World War II ally the Soviet Union rejected it, but you can’t suppress the truth down for long.
5. Around the World in Eighty Days, by Jules Verne
Fastidious Victorian gentleman Phileas Fogg makes a foolhardy wager at his club: He will circumnavigate the planet in eighty days. With resourceful French valet Passepartout by his side and a Scotland Yard detective — who mistakes him for a fugitive from justice — on his heels, he sets out with his fortune, his freedom, and, most importantly, his honor on the line. These and other novels by Verne have, from the beginning, fired the imaginations of readers from all over the world, though poor early English translations led to them being long mischaracterized as juvenile pulp fiction.
6. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
After an introduction to a horrifyingly regimented future “utopia,” readers meet John, a young man who has grown up in an isolated, unenlightened community before being brought back to civilization, which, shall we say, does not match his expectations. Huxley’s novel, one of the most celebrated in twentieth-century literature — and also impressively high on the lists of books targeted for censorship — depicts a future in which hedonism, not repression, is the greatest threat to humanity.
7. Candide, by Voltaire
Everybody’s favorite scathingly funny French philosopher introduces a young man raised in indoctrinated, isolated innocence who is repeatedly blindsided by reality when he becomes a citizen of the world. Anticipating the antipathy with which secular and religious authorities would condemn his work, Voltaire published it under a pseudonym, but everybody knew who had done the deed. Candide was widely banned, even in the United States into the twentieth century — high praise, indeed.
8. Cannery Row, by John Steinbeck
A run-down street in seaside Monterey, California, is as colorful a character as any of the people who populate it in this sweet Depression-era story about a community of the world’s cast-offs. This semiautobiographical novel, a warm wash of nostalgia, also serves as a requiem for a lost world the author could never find again. Steinbeck often kept it short and bittersweet: Look also for The Moon Is Down, Of Mice and Men, The Pearl, The Red Pony, and Tortilla Flat.
9. The Catcher in the Rye, by J. D. Salinger
Reading this mid-20th-century anthem of adolescent angst remains a rite of passage for high school literature students, who get a thrill out of reading one of the most frequently banned books of all time. The narrator’s sour sensibilities and his frank assessment of the world’s crapitude captivate many young readers, although the author (who exacerbated the allure of the book through his notorious reclusiveness) intended the book for an adult audience. Salinger’s other works include novellas and short stories, including Franny and Zooey, Nine Stories, and the twofer Raise High the Roofbeam Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction.
10. Ethan Frome, by Edith Wharton
This flashback novel immerses the reader in the tragedy of a romantic triangle, as the title character agonizes over his affection for his sickly wife’s cousin, who has come to live with them and help around the house. Warning: Things don’t end well. The critical reception to Wharton’s work was mixed, but those who praised it recognized it as a compelling morality tale (though based on a real incident and thought to allude to the author’s own unhappy marriage).
11. Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury
In a dystopian future where firefighters ignite inflammatory books (that is, all of them) rather than suppress conflagrations, one member of the book-burning brigade, increasingly alienated in his decadent society, is lured to the light side. Bradbury initially denied that the theme of the story is censorship, fingering the boob tube for libracide instead, but he later graciously realized he could have it both ways.
12. Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley
A scientist conceives the idea of creating a man constructed from body parts and bringing him to life but is disgusted by his creation, which, devastated by the scientist’s and others’ rejection as it struggles to learn what it means to be human, exacts vengeance. The novel, written by the daughter of philosophers who began working on it when she was still in her teens, initially received mixed reviews, but its stature has steadily grown, aided by its wealth of classical allusions and Enlightenment inspirations, not to mention its profound psychological resonance.
13. The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
A young man gets caught up in the world of wealth during the Roaring Twenties, especially that revolving around the enigmatic millionaire Jay Gatsby, but he discovers how superficial and hollow the American dream is after observing the petty passions of the rich. Fitzgerald’s novel was well received but did not fare as well as his earlier works, and when he died in relative obscurity years later, he believed himself a failure. During and after World War II, however, The Great Gatsby experienced a resurgence, and it is now accounted one of the great American novels.
14. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
A riverboat captain in the Belgian Congo, looking forward to meeting Kurtz, the manager of an isolated upriver colonial station, is devastated when the man he meets turns out to be quite different from the imagined ideal. Conrad’s story, overshadowed by Francis Ford Coppola’s loose film adaptation, the antiwar epic Apocalypse Now, should be read on its own merits. Though much praised for its psychological insight, is also considered one of the most potent criticisms of colonialism in literature.
15. Night, by Elie Wiesel
The author’s harrowing account of his early adolescence spent in Nazi concentration camps — during which his father, with whom he was incarcerated, gradually becomes helpless, and young Elie rejects God and humanity — is full of raw, stark power. Its critical reception was complicated by various factors: It is a memoir that contains a great deal of fiction, and it was published in quite different forms in Yiddish, then a pared-down French translation, from which a further abridged English version was derived. But that form at least is widely acknowledged as great art.
16. The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde
A beautiful young hedonist sells his soul for the price of agelessness, while a portrait of him painted by an admirer marks his physical dissipation. Wilde’s first novel was attacked for its homoeroticism and the scandalously frank depiction of debauchery but was received more favorably when the author toned down the former. Rich with allusions to, among other works, Faust, The Picture of Dorian Gray stands on its own as a tragic morality tale.
17. The Red Badge of Courage, by Stephen Crane
A young Civil War soldier overcomes his initial cowardice, but, despite the fact that he acts heroically in a later battle, his humanity is diminished. Crane, who finished the novel when he was only twenty-four (he would die just five years later after a series of debilitating lung hemorrhages), was celebrated for its authentic detail about the conduct of war, though he had never experienced it himself. It was also hailed as a triumph of both naturalism and impressionism, as it realistically portrays the ordeal of battle while achieving allegorical stature.
18. The Sorrows of Young Werther, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Written primarily in the form of a series of letters, this semiautobiographical story relates the tragedy of a young man who falls in love with a woman already betrothed to another. Although it made Goethe’s reputation at a young age, it also precipitated “Werther Fever,” prompting a fad of overwrought young people lamenting the vicissitudes of unrequited love, and Goethe later disavowed it and decried the Romantic literary movement it epitomized.
19. The Stranger, by Albert Camus
This existentialist classic chronicles the nihilistic life of an apathetic man who aimlessly commits murder and, once incarcerated, renounces humanity, which he has passively estranged himself from. Camus’s portrait of a man without a soul was a manifesto of his belief that life is bereft of meaning, and that the efforts of humans to find meaning are futile.
20. Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte
This complex melodrama about the compounded consequences of acting on selfish and vengeful motives has been overshadowed by Hollywood’s treatment of the thwarted love between a young woman named Catherine and her untamed foster brother, Heathcliff. But the story boasts an unflinching honesty about its deeply flawed protagonists, and though critical response to its publication was mixed, it has lived on as an expression of star-crossed ill fortune.