As a former lecturer in English lit, I love the concept of a “reading list.” In honor of all the reading lists that have shaped my life, here is my stab at the tradition, combining classics with “modern classics” to help jump-start your SAT prep–and any future literary pursuits!
1. At a little over a hundred pages, Washington Square by Henry James is psychological perfection (bonus: prepping for the SAT by reading James is like training for the big race with weights on your sneakers; those Jamesian sentences will make you fly later): Is the handsome but poor Morris Townsend in love with the plain heiress, Catherine Sloper or is he just after her money? Though no one is quite like James (or perhaps every great writer is, because of the extent to which he influenced everyone), try any novel by Ian McEwan for more brilliant sentences and acute observation. In the mood for another slim, perfect novel that concerns a defining episode in a young woman’s life? Try The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers.
2. With its precise, dazzling style and an intricately-constructed plot that makes even the most surprising moments seem inevitable, The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud concerns the well-tread subject of cusp-of-30 Manhattanites struggling to fulfill their early promise. For an early 20th century taste of the same broad social vision and clever plotting, try Howard’s End. E. M Forster’s novel of class, morality, and economic status braids together the fortunes of the cultured Schlegel sisters, the wealthy, conservative Wilcox family and the impoverished clerk, Leonard Bast in a comedy of manners that begins with a series of seemingly trivial incidents and twists away to one of the boldest, most satisfying conclusions in all of literature.
3. It’s as if Michael Cunningham inhaled Virginia Woolf and breathed her back on the page, and yet, his Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, The Hours is completely original in its own right. In the hands of a lesser-writer, the clever premise might have been gimmicky or even disastrous: the inner lives of three women (Woolf herself, a fifties’ housewife who finds herself reading Mrs. Dalloway, and a Mrs. Dalloway-like character planning a party for her lifetime love, a great poet dying of AIDS) illuminated with astonishing intimacy. Before or after, try the Woolf novel which inspired it all.
4. Reading Crime and Punishment for the first time in AP English, I was struck by how entertaining it is. The novel has everything: guilt, redemption, great ideas, and suspense that makes Grisham and Patterson books feel like child’s play. For more heart-pumping moments of the “when are they going to find out he did it?” variety, check out An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser. Clunky in style but unbearably suspenseful, this early 20th century 900-page masterpiece (famously called the “worst great novel ever written”) is a dark vision of the American dream. The story? Inspired by a newspaper clipping: what happens when a social climber’s pregnant girlfriend gives him an ultimatum and threatens his romance with a rich debutante? Sound familiar? Hint: Jonathan Rhys-Meyers is featured reading C & P in one of the early scenes of Woody Allen’s Match Point, but Dreiser’s great tome would be more appropriate.
5.Â The Collected Stories by Franz Kafka is a must-read for any dark, alienated, pre-college consciousness. Added treat: you’ll start seeing echoes of “The Hunger Artist,” “The Penal Colony,” and “A Country Doctor” just about everywhere after (wait till you get to the GMAT, everyone’s favorite oppressive, computer-adaptive nightmare). If you fancy some of the alternative narrative strategies, The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides is a hypnotic execution of the first-person plural pronoun and a master lesson in point-of-view for budding fiction-writers out there.
6. Thomas Mann’s novella, Death in Venice is perhaps the most celebrated novella of all time and the inspiration behind an equally decadent, painfully beautiful film by the same name. (3 great artists of the 20th century: Mann, Mahler, and the director, Luchino Visconti fuse their energies to generate this sublime evocation of tortured yearning and unattainable beauty, each frame packed with enough richness to generate a semester’s worth of Film Criticism 101 papers). Steven Millhauser’s gorgeously written novella-triptych,The King in the Tree (populated by characters like Don Juan, Tristan, and Isolde) also captures the dark side of love and will haunt you like a distant crush at a seaside resort.
7. “Lolita: light of my life, fire of my loins”: was there ever a more famous first line? What is it exactly–this novel of novels for which Playboy magazine once invited 12 of the world’s greatest writers (including Jane Smiley, Joyce Carol Oates, and A.S Byatt) to pay tribute in an exclusive anniversary edition. An erotic murder mystery? A tragicomedy? A paean to the English language? No other novel (in my opinion) so captures the cruelty inherent in love as does Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. Though told with a lighter brush, The Confessions of Max Tivoli by Andrew Sean Greer is another elegantly written tale of unusual love: the protagonist gets older as he gets younger. Yes, it’s like Fitzgerald’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” except better. Rumor has it that Greer kept a copy of Lolita on his desk while he wrote it.
8. Proust’sÂ Rememberance of Things Past is an indisputable masterpiece–but it’s also far from an easy read. For a more digestible Proustian experience,Â try The Museum of Innocence by Nobel-prize winning Turkish writer, Orhan Pamuk. Rich playboy, Kamil Bey’s obsessive, decades-long love for his distant cousin, the child-like, fiery Fusun is a grand ekphrastic meditation on love, heartbreak, the collector’s impulse, and the city of Istanbul.
9. James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson: never have the reputations of a writer and his biographer achieved such an intertwined, interdependent relationship in the public consciousness. Millhauser’s cult classic parody of the Boswell/Johnson dynamic, Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer is what I call my “Bible on the subject of childhood and all its wonders and terrors” and a fine example of literature’s capacity to “defamiliarize the ordinary.” Check out the rapturous descriptions of icicles, kindergarten, Christmas, and midnight bike rides that will leave you seeing the world in bright, vivid colors. One of the most, if not the most original book I have ever read.