The list of “must read” authors is long, and differs depending on who you ask. But usually, the authors on these lists are (or were) pretty prolific, and like a pool of frigid water, you may be nervous about diving into their backlists; better to dip your toe in first. Here are 10 ideal “starter novels” for authors guaranteed to be on many, if not most, lists of can’t miss writers.
Author: William Faulkner. Start Here: The Reivers
Experts will insist you must read The Sound and the Fury, a real bear of a book. A brilliant novel, sure, but also one that drops you into the deep end on page one and then proceeds to hold your head under water for 300 pages. Instead of tackling what can be a frustrating and difficult read, start with Faulkner’s final novel, The Reivers, which discards most of his heavier literary gambits to tell one of the most straightforward stories of his career, a lightly comedic picaresque about three unlikely car thieves in a small Mississippi town. That doesn’t mean it’s not a brilliant novel—it was award the Pulitzer Prize, after all—but it does mean you’ll get an intro to Faulkner’s sensibility and obsessions without having to parse his peculiarly Southern style.
Author: William Shakespeare. Start Here: Much Ado About Nothing
Just about everyone is assigned Shakespeare at some point in their high school or college careers, usually one of the major plays: Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth. Aside from the challenge of reading works designed to be performed, his major works can be dense with allusion, reference, and, of course, wordplay (and in archaic language, no less). What makes Much Ado About Nothing a good choice for a first attempt at the Bard is its sense of fun—it’s a comedy, so the wordplay is less about historical and political references and more about, well, making off-color jokes. Even on the page, it’s hilarious and playful, which takes away some of the anxiety and difficulty.
Author: Stephen King. Start here: Misery
King might seem a surprising inclusion here, but as his career has gone on, his literary cred has gone up by orders of magnitude; it could be argued that anyone seeking an understanding of modern literary culture has to be familiar with the man once crowned the Master of Horror. The problem, of course, is that King’s best-known books (the ones most likely to be recommended to a newcomer) are long, and often dense with references to other works written in his uniquely wordy style. Instead of diving into the infinite pages of The Stand, start with Misery, one of the tightest, most-focused books King has ever written. It has the fluid prose and creeping dread of his longer, much-beloved books, minus the over-arching mythology that clutters much of his work, and the supernatural aspects that might turn some folks off.
Author: Leo Tolstoy. Start Here: The Death of Ivan Ilyich
The words “Russian novel,” with their connotations of length, complexity, and dour atmosphere, might scare you off of Tolstoy and his contemporaries altogether. Still, some of the greatest works of fiction come from this literary tradition, and Tolstoy’s name is always on the list of challenging must-read authors. Before dedicating a year of your life to War and Peace, pick up the relatively short and uncomplicated The Death of Ivan Ilyich. It’s a powerful story that touches on the themes and techniques the author uses to incredible effect in his major works, but it’s accessible in a way that those other novels aren’t—and deals in universal themes you can appreciate even if you’re not a Russian living in the 19th century. It’s the perfect introduction to Tolstoy’s genius.
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Author: Charles Dickens. Start Here: Great Expectations
Dickens is one of those oddball literary greats who is also much maligned. Bring up Dickens, and half the room will complain that he was paid by the word and thus wrote sloppy, structureless stories merely designed to entertain, with no greater artistic merit. The other half will ask what, exactly, is the problem with that? Dickens had a way with words, and his storytelling techniques revolutionized literature, but his books are a bit lengthy, and they do get quite complicated. Start with Great Expectations; it’s the novel that would result if you poured all of Dickens’ other works into a computer and had it gin up a more concise, sharply-organized version of the ideal Dickens story.
Author: Haruki Murakami. Start Here: A Wild Sheep Chase
Murakami is another mainstay on the list of challenging contemporary authors, and it’s usually because people recommend his most famous works first—dense bricks like The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, 1Q84 or Kafka on the Shore. These books are brilliant, but they are also difficult to parse, unique in both style and structure, not to mention imagery. To ease into Murakami, start with A Wild Sheep Chase—it’s got all the trademark weirdness, but within a much more straightforward story. It will help you feel like you “get” Murakami, even the parts you don’t, so by the time you read one of his “must-read” books, your head (probably) won’t explode. Some might argue for Norwegian Wood, which has more in common with traditional Western literature, but that one is an outlier in his bibliography, and won’t prepare you for the epic strangeness of his major works.
Author: Ernest Hemingway. Start Here: The Sun Also Rises
Anyone seeking to pad out their reading resume will be eventually directed to Hemingway; love him or hate him, there’s no arguing that his style and approach to fiction—both very consciously honed and developed—changed everything. His influence is immense, so you simply have to read him, if only to decide for yourself if his reputation is deserved. You might be advised to start with The Old Man and the Sea because of its relative simplicity and slim page count, but don’t—it’s an outlier, his final major work, and doesn’t represent what made Hemingway Hemingway. The Sun Also Rises is the ideal starting point—the story is engaging in ways that some of his other novels aren’t, yet it also features the Hemingway “style” at its most controlled.
Author: Virginia Woolf. Start Here: A Room of One’s Own
Virginia Woolf’s contributions to modern literature are everywhere—subtle, often hidden or downplayed, but there nonetheless. But reading her major works of fiction if you’re not a student of literature can be daunting, so instead, start with her excellent, book-length essay, which implements a fictional narrator and story, and yet is nonetheless considered non-fiction. If you think it takes great talent to pull something like off, you’d be right. The benefit of starting here is that you’ll get a much clearer idea of Woolf’s literary sensibility and thematic focus before diving into her fiction.
Author: Toni Morrison. Start Here: The Bluest Eye
Morrison is one of the most important writers of the 20th century; her work is consistently beautiful and poetic. But you shouldn’t just dive into Beloved—as incredible as that book is, it is one of the densest popular literary novels ever written, a book in which Morrison’s prose resonates, where an unexpected structure and layered allusions to myth and history form something greater than the sum of its parts. Instead, dip your toe in with The Bluest Eye, Morrison’s first novel, and which shows the beginnings of her style while keeping the number of characters and the branches of the plot more limited than her later work, which will allow you to pay closer attention to the smart things Morrison is doing on the edges (and to listen to that prose sing).
Author: James Baldwin. Start Here: Giovanni’s Room
If you’re looking to master 20th century American literature, you’re going to have to tackle Baldwin at some point. His work is beautiful, but it also focuses on social commentary and criticism; Baldwin was a writer who was part of the world instead of removed from it. This can make his novels challenging, because they are all doing three things at once—telling a story, teaching a lesson, and shining a light on some of society’s worst aspects. Giovanni’s Room is an early novel that has all of that, but the central love story—concerning a man who falls in love with another man while on honeymoon with his new wife—is primal and tortured, compelling and universal. When you consider how ahead of its time this book is, it’s essential reading—and the perfect intro to Baldwin’s body of work.