1. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll: This is the first book I remember in any detail. My father read it to me when I was three and it opened up wild spaces in my head.
2-4. Anne of Green Gables, L.M. Montgomery; Little Women, Louisa May Alcott; Trixie Belden books, Julie Campbell Tatham: My mother bribed me with these books to go to school when I was in the first grade, so I credit them with keeping me from becoming an elementary-school-dropout.
5. Mansfield Park, Jane Austen: This was the first book that I read by Austen and I read it when I was too young to realize it was witty. Later, in college, one of my English professors, a renowned Austen scholar, would bemoan my affection for the book, decrying Fanny Price as a “vampire.”
6. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë: Also read when I was too young to really understand it, but I was not too young to be insensible to the gothic allure of the tragic Brontë siblings. I teach this book all the time now and am always stunned anew at how beautifully it is constructed.
9. Beloved, Toni Morrison: In high school and college I started finding books that completely changed my understanding of what literature could do. This was one of the first of these. The chokecherry tree, the milk, the patches of color—all breaking the hell out of my previous notions of how a novel worked.
11. Light in August, William Faulkner: So magical that it is no stretch to see why Morrison and García Márquez count Faulkner as an influence. Any Faulkner will do, but I love the toothpaste in the closet as primal scene here.
12. The Baron in the Trees, Italo Calvino: Terrifically charming introduction to Calvino.
13. The Passion, Jeanette Winterson: It is hard to believe Winterson was in her early twenties when she wrote this. This is one of those books where every sentence makes me more and more joyful.
14. The Bloody Chamber, Angela Carter: The stories here are creepy and uncanny in the best ways. Those ways include lots of girls claiming their inner beasts, beautiful and savage play with blood imagery, and lovely unearthing of the sexuality of fairy tales.
15. Dracula, Bram Stoker: Since we’re talking about blood… I love teaching this novel. The structure is surprisingly complex and symmetrical, and it stands as a perfect container of so many cultural anxieties and fantasies that it is a literature professor’s dream. This book, along with Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (number 16), is essential context for my students who are coming out of adolescence on waves of paranormal young adult fiction.
16. Orlando, Virginia Woolf: Another book that completely transformed my ideas of what is possible in fiction. Amazing work with conveying the passage of time here.
17. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude Stein: Sure, I love the jouissance of The Making of the Americans but intelligible Stein is so delightfully gossipy. Read it alongside Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast and be simultaneously charmed and repulsed by the egotism of authorship.
18. Ava, Carole Maso: The obvious inheritor of Woolf and Stein’s mantles, Maso is ruthless. I love all of her books, but this one in particular blows apart the shell of the novel.
19. Blood and Guts in High School, Kathy Acker: At this point, I feel I must mention Kathy Acker who is shock fiction at its best. I have a friend who burned this book on his propane grill after being forced to read it in graduate school. This is a great book to test one’s ideas about what makes narrative and fiction. I like to teach it alongside Donald Barthelme and Chuck Palahniuk, and I just cross my fingers that the students won’t take it home for spring break, thus prompting a cascade of emails from parents who glimpsed the pages and pages of badly-doodled penises.
20. The Famished Road, Ben Okri: A fever dream of a book that seems larger than the space it takes up. Plus, it inspired a Radiohead song.
21. White Noise, Don DeLillo: There is so much that is good and funny and self-reflexive about this book. This is a nice quick read for my students who think fiction writers are all flaky artists who know nothing about literary theory.
22. Skin, Shelley Jackson: Novel in progress written via tattoos on volunteers’ skin. It may be a bit gimmicky, but it is a great exercise in thinking about the dissemination of literature, especially in combination with electronic publishing and the dematerialization of the book.
23. Lark and Termite, Jayne Anne Phillips: Phillips’ most recent novel is the culmination of a career of beautiful fiction. This book is shockingly lovely from the first sentence to the last.
24. Hell, Kathryn Davis: The architecture of her books is amazing, especially this one. A gorgeous book that maps the weird and wild twists and turns of longing.
25. Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler: Really, anything Butler wrote is strange and wonderful and worth reading. This one is great because of its positioning of a young girl as the hero on a quest.
26. Cat’s Eye, Margaret Atwood: It is hard to think of anyone contemporary who does female characters more wittily.
27-50. My husband and I have a game where we list “perfect” stories. We don’t have any criteria for this designation; we just rely on a feeling, the intuitive force with which a “perfect” story strikes one and makes itself unforgettable. And thus I present them in no particular order with no individual commentary. Strangely (considering that our tastes in fiction diverge rather strongly), we are nearly always in agreement over the designation. Warning to you youngsters flirting madly in your workshops: this is what counts for entertainment in an alliance between two fiction writers.
“A Family Supper” Kazuo Ishiguro
“Car Crash While Hitchhiking” Denis Johnson
“A Good Man is Hard to Find” Flannery O’Connor
“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” Joyce Carol Oates
“Cathedral” Raymond Carver
“St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves” Karen Russell
“The Thing in the Forest” A.S. Byatt
“Open Secrets” Alice Munro
“The Fall of the House of Usher” Edgar Allen Poe
“La Mayonette” Lily Tuck
“Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot” Robert Olen Butler
Editor’s Note: This list is part of Big Other’s Tribute to William H. Gass’s 88th Birthday.
“I’m Your Horse in the Night” Luisa Valenzuela
“The Things They Carried” Tim O’Brien
“Saint Marie” Louise Erdrich
“Paper Lantern” Stuart Dybek
“White Angel” Michael Cunningham
“The Colonel” Carolyn Forché
“Limestone Diner” Trudy Lewis
“Sagittarius” Greg Hrbek
“How to Talk to a Hunter” Pam Houston
“Hear that Long Train Moan” Percival Everett
“The Metamorphosis” Franz Kafka
“The Management of Grief” Bharati Mukherjee
“Why the Sky Turns Red when the Sun Goes Down” Ryan Harty