Most of the time, reading a novel is pretty straightforward. Step one: pick up book. Step two: open book. Step three: read, and enjoy. Some novels, though, go beyond mere complexity and actually require you to be knowledgable in a certain area just to have hope of enjoying—or understanding—what’s on the page. These five books are perfect examples: if you’re going to read one of them, you’d be well advised to dig through a long list of required reading first, or you’ll miss out on half of what they have to offer.
Silverlock, by John Myers Myers
The only character in Myers’ fantasy who isn’t a famous figure from classic literature is the protagonist, A. Clarence Shandon, MBA. Hailing from Wisconsin, Shandon shipwrecks in the Commonwealth of Letters, where he is befriended by Golias and meets Pathfinder, Puck, Becky Sharp, Brian Boru, and dozens of other (hopefully) familiar names as he goes on an adventure that transforms him from a rather full-of-himself academic into a legend in his own right, nicknamed Silverlock. If you didn’t recognize every one of the names in the previous sentence, you’ll need to bone up on your literature and history before diving into this dazzling novel—every single reference is a play on famous and not-so-famous books, offering shades and deep dives that go far beyond the basic plot.
The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde
In order to truly understand everything Fforde does in his excellent Thursday Next books, it would, first of all, help tremendously to be British, as many of Fforde’s references are specific to his home country, although attempts are made to Americanize them for U.S. audiences. Even more important for a book series set in a universe in which literature is as popular as superhero movies and is also something dynamic that has to be managed—often by jumping into the stories themselves—is the long list of novels you’ll need to bone up on if you’re to have any hope whatsoever of understanding the jokes, references, puns, and lampshadings that come at you fast and furious in this deft, intelligent metafictional masterpiece.
Special Topics in Calamity Physics, by Marisha Pessl
Every chapter in this impressive novel is named after another novel, and more literary references abound; the whole thing is structured like a college course, complete with voluminous footnotes. That alone requires that you do a lot of reading before diving in, but more importantly, Pessl includes plenty of references to works that don’t actually exist, making the novel even more absorbing as she transcends mere name-dropping to creating her own half-fictional literary world. If you’re going to be able to tell when she’d referencing a real work and when she’s created something purely for her novel, you’re going to have to have a pretty deep knowledge of novels, plays, and historical works at your disposal. Once you’ve done the reading, the central mystery of Pessl’s novel, set largely in a film studies department at a small college where the teacher dies by apparent suicide, becomes even more engrossing.
Just About Every Stephen King Book Ever
Stephen King has evolved from a purveyor of horror stories into a national institution, and his fiction has evolved right along with him, creating one of the most complex interrelated meta universes in history. Over the years, King has painstaking retrofitted all of his works into a single, awe-inspiring world. Characters and events are referenced in different novels, stories are tied together in surprising ways, and motifs and symbols appear in unexpected places. In fact, there are some beautiful (and complicated) infographics out there designed to clarify the whole King universe for you—although tracing the connections might require some time, patience, and a magnifying glass of some sort. The epicenter of King’s universe is definitely The Dark Tower series, which pulls in so many characters, events, and tropes from his other books that the King Metauniverse simply doesn’t make any sense without it.
Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon
The list of topics that you should have more than a glancing knowledge of in order to have half a chance with this novel includes statistics, world history, linguistics, and physics. And that’s just for starters. Even if you do go back to school and spend 10 years with your nose in various ancient tomes of forgotten lore, you still might not get everything that Pynchon is serving up here. Gravity’s Rainbow is one of those novels that divides people into two camps: those that think its genius even if they can’t quite get it all, and those who think it’s impenetrable. If you want to make up your own mind about it, though, you have to at least give yourself a fighting chance, and that means creating a lengthy syllabus and reading until you’re at least half as smart as Pynchon himself.