While I'm devoting the fall to reading books by friends and colleagues, I had the amazing opportunity to go back in time to read various "canons" for my PhD exams. Here's a few books I've loved and re-loved after my reading - books which, I suspect, tell us much of what we need to know about literature.
Frankenstein - not just a story about a monster (really, every story is a story about monsters). If Don Quixote and Madame Bovary are in part about bad readers, Frankenstein is about a bad writer - one who can't accept that his (/her) hybrid birth has a life of its own. I love the double-frame, and how the juicy center of the novel is fully inhabited by the monster's tale.
Middlemarch - Eliot reads the brains, manners, and actions of her characters better (and more ironically) than anyone. The book is a compendium of people, artifacts, digressions that far exceed any one character's journey.
Moby Dick - talk about digression! As Ahab, I was "dismasted" after reading MD or, The Whale. A journey of language, a journey of a ship. Messing with the adventure novel, MD meanders through etymologies and symbologies of cetological goodness as much as it tells a tragedy of crew itself coffined by the whale. I will forever be haunted by Orson Welles as Father Mapple in the (not very good) movie version...
Ulysses - is not really hard to read. Of course, there are a few chapters that are difficult, but it's by no means impenetrable. It has so much sound, so much texture. Beautiful, beautiful. Really, if you're scared by the thought of reading it, don't be (yes, Finnegan's Wake is still super scary).
Lolita - my sin, my soul. A book that seduces you with artifice to out-and overlook Humbert's nymphette-mania. Everything is glorious - how HH's "scepter of my passion" later devolves into a "bitter tumor of my passion."
The Art Lover - Carole Maso's elegy is charming and haunting and ultimately a breathtaking reclamation of self in the face of grief. My favorite writer in a sort of post-Duras lineage, who seamlessly merges deep emotional longing and formal sophistication.
Infinite Jest - yes, it's gigantic. And yes, it's the hippest. But it's also the most wondrous synthesis of brilliance and humor and pathos I've read in forever. I'm super-looking forward to the Decembrists' video recreating the Eschaton scene.
and for you theory-heads out there, Blanchot, Blanchot, Blanchot.
Evangelist in readerosity,