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The top classic books everyone should read

Bronte Sisters

Countless hours in a bookstore, conversations with friends and colleagues, weekly newspaper book reviews -- these are some ways to choose which books to read.

But these activities require time and often involve the agony of making yet another decision. So, in order to save you some time and suggest a starting point, Live at IU asked three Indiana University Bloomington professors in the Department of English for a list of 10 classic books everyone should read. The number -- 10 -- quickly became irrelevant and our literary experts chose books according to two criteria: how foundational the books were and the impact the authors had on other writers, culture and society.

While any list of "must-reads" is ultimately a matter of personal interest and taste, here is a "menu" of books IU literary experts offer for you to try.

Cultural impact

Linda Charnes, an expert on Shakespeare and postmodernism, made a selection of books based on their "magnitude of cultural impact." These are books that "an educated citizen living in 21st century should be familiar with, as these writings have shaped our understanding of life, culture and citizenship" in the Western world:

  • Homer's The Iliad. The first piece of western epic literature, The Iliad, is a reference point for many Western writers.
  • William Shakespeare's Hamlet. "The most famous play ever written."
  • John Milton's Paradise Lost. "An unbelievingly moving and beautiful story of why the fall of man ended up being a good thing."
  • Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary. "A perfectly-crafted novel," which addresses the dilemma of the modern consumer -- nothing is ever enough.
  • Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. A story of family intricacies and conflicts.
  • Lev Tolstoy's War and Peace. Tolstoy builds a complete world, showing the costs of war on society, family and individuals.
  • Thomas Paine's Common Sense. "Every American who doesn't like monarchy should read the book. It is the single text that had the most impact on the Declaration of Independence," says Charnes.
  • Art Spiegelman's Maus: A Survivor's Tale. This classic modern American comic novel tells a story of a family's survival of the Holocaust. Charnes included the book in the list for "its incredible innovation and power of telling."
  • Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past
  • Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Women
  • The Constitution of the United States for how "stunningly unprecedented this writing is."

Women writers

Susan Gubar, anthologist and expert on female writers, compiled a list of women writers for richness and meaning in their works. These authors are not only great to read for just "pure pleasure," but also to find new meanings and understanding of issues women face in their everyday lives: in family and romance, dealing with aging or confronting death. Their novels, short stories and poems are also must-reads to gain insight into particular historical issues and to understand the impact of women's literature on contemporary culture.

"The texts are great to read and wonderful to do research on. They have an ongoing cultural life in the cinema, on the Web, in places they [writers] lived," says Gubar.

She recommends works by the following writers:

  • Jane Austen
  • Emily Dickenson
  • Charlotte Bronte (Jane Eyre)
  • Harriet Jacobs (Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl)
  • Edith Wharton
  • Virginia Woolf
  • Mary Shelley (Frankenstein)
  • Elizabeth Bishop
  • Adrienne Rich
  • Toni Morrison, a Nobel Prize-winning American author.

More must-reads

Stephen Watt, an expert on 19th Century melodrama and Irish literature, suggested the following must-reads:

  • James Joyce's Ulysses. "For those people who are interested in the modern novel, Ulysses is an enormous aesthetic achievement." The book reflects Joyce's "elusive style" and requires background in other classic literature, including Shakespeare. A vigorous read, Ulysses is a feast for eclectic readers: it includes various literary forms from a parody of medieval romance to the 17th century scientific discourse in English language. "An obvious choice" for first place in a number of must-read lists compiled at the turn of the century, Ulysses has influenced many important writers, including Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter, both Nobel Prize-winners. Pinter, for example, says that he keeps Ulysses on his nightstand and reads it every day.
  • William Shakespeare's King Lear. "As tragic as it is, as heartrending as it is, as violent as it is -- they [characters] endure, they persevere," points out Watt. This "indomitable human spirit" reflected in a famous quote from King Lear -- "The worst is not, So long as we can say, 'This is the worst.' "(Act IV, Scene I) -- became a topic of interest and further inquiry for many contemporary writers, including Beckett.
  • Emily Dickenson's poetry
  • Jane Austen
  • Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa and Translations
  • Samuel Beckett (early and late "Trilogies")
  • Bernard Shaw's plays
  • William Butler Yeats' poetry
  • Salman Rushdie
  • August Wilson