We’ve all been there: nodding along vaguely when someone brings up Ulysses in casual conversation. Everyone has those books that they repeatedly pick up and then repeatedly put down. These skeletons in our literary closet always seem to sink to the bottom of our summer reading list, destined never to be finished. Maria Popova’s recent post on University of Paris professor Pierre Bayard’s controversial book How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read has got us thinking about how fluency in classic works of literature acts as a marker of a well read, culturally developed person. So, in case you’re interested in impersonating a more educated reader, we have compiled a little cheat sheet to guide you through 10 important books you probably haven’t read but whose cultural importance you should definitely understand. This way, you can save face at your next cocktail party — without sacrificing quality time with that Stephen King novel at the beach. (But hey, promise us you’ll give at least one of these a try before the year is out?)
Cheat sheet: Infinite Jest is long, with most editions topping 1000 pages. In the novel, Infinite Jest is the title of a movie that is so engrossing that its viewers become uninterested in anything other than viewing the film. When the master copy cartridge goes missing, chaos ensues. Most of the action takes place at an elite Boston tennis academy and a drug rehabilitation center. The story touches upon Quebec separatism, child abuse, and of course, an unwatchable, beautiful art film.
Talking point: In an interview with Salon David Foster Wallace summed up his intentions for the book: “I wanted to do something real American, about what it’s like to live in America around the millennium. There’s something particularly sad about it, something that doesn’t have very much to do with physical circumstances, or the economy, or any of the stuff that gets talked about in the news. It’s more like a stomach-level sadness.”
Cheat sheet: In 1998 Ulysses ranked #1 on Modern Library’s list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. The book runs parallel to Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey, but instead of the Trojan War hero Odysseus, it chronicles the life of its earthy, thoroughly average Jewish protagonist Leopold Bloom on an ordinary day in Dublin. James Joyce’s use of stream of consciousness, allusions, and style parodies made his novel revolutionary in the world of English literature.
Talking point: Stephen Dedalus, the young protagonist of Joyce’s earlier novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, is also a main character in Ulysses. In this novel, Stephen is analogous to Telemachus, becoming a sort of surrogate son to Bloom, and any image we may have had of him in Portrait of the Artist as a romantic hero gives way to the disappointing truth that he’s nothing more than a narcissistic, pretentious underachiever.
Cheat sheet: T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land is perhaps the single most well-known and influential poem of the modernist era. Lacking a fixed plot or consistent characters, it deals with the hefty themes of spiritual dryness, humanity’s curse upon itself and the temporal nature of life.
Talking point: The Waste Land is packed with literary and cultural allusions, from Shakespeare and Milton to the Hindu Brihadaranyaka Upanishad and the Buddha’s Fire Sermon. Eliot did provide footnotes to the poem, but they’re also understood to be both a parody of academic footnotes and intentionally confusing, so you can’t exactly rely on those, either.
Cheat sheet: Virginia Woolf described Middlemarch as “the magnificent book that, with all its imperfections, is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.” In eight volumes, George Eliot’s sketch on provincial life also takes an adult level of commitment. The story takes place in Middlemarch, England in the 1830s and addresses social and political reforms of the day through the plight of Dorothea Brooke, an intelligent, ambitious woman caught in a loveless marriage.
Talking point: Ever felt like a hopeless misfit? Well, you have something in common with almost every character in Middlemarch. From Dorothea to Will to Mr. Casaubon, every character in the novel experiences that universal “no one understands me” feeling.
Cheat sheet: Set in the South in the late 1920s, The Sound and the Fury follows the Compsons, a family of Southern aristocrats that has lost both its fortune and its faith in the generations since the Civil War. Told in the stream-of-consciousness style, from the perspective of various Compsons, including the mentally handicapped son whose “tale told by an idiot” gives the novel its title, the work is a rumination on time, death, and the decline of the South.
Talking point: The Sound and the Fury cemented Faulkner’s reputation as one of the most important modernist authors, and a staple of millions of high school reading lists. But the novel didn’t become popular until two years after its publication, when Faulkner published the flashier Sanctuary, which is now considered one of the author’s least important works.
Cheat sheet: Written by Miguel de Cervantes in the early 1600s, Don Quixote is considered one of the most influential works of Spanish literature. After reading one too many gentlemanly books, the novel’s protagonist decides to revive the chivalric movement under the name Don Quixote .
Talking point: Since the book’s publication, Don Quixote has inspired many “knight in shining armor” protagonists in pop culture — many of which could be aptly described by the word “quixotic,” or unrealistically idealistic.
Cheat sheet: Known as one of Tolstoy’s greatest literary achievement, War and Peace chronicles France’s invasion of Russia and the events of the Napoleonic era. The novel, like most Russian classics, has a host of characters and plot twists and hits upon almost every universal human theme: love, war, peace, sex, the meaning of life etc.
Talking point: In this piece of historical fiction, a frustrated Tolstoy was on a mission to set the record straight. His work makes every effort to emphasize that it is not just the great men who shape history, but the small, seemingly insignificant characters as well.
Cheat sheet: Marcel Proust’s seven-volume, 3500-page semi-autobiographical masterpiece In Search of Lost Time recounts the narrator’s experiences of falling in love, learning about art, and growing up in society.
Talking point: Involuntary memory — when an everyday cue evokes recollections of the past without conscious effort — is a major theme of the novel and its most culturally significant contribution. Most famously, Proust’s narrator finds his involuntary recollections triggered by the taste of madeleine cookies dipped in tea.
Cheat sheet: In Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, the novel’s narrator, a common seaman named Ishmael, tells the story of Captain Ahab’s obsessive quest to find and kill the elusive sperm whale Moby-Dick.
Talking point: The novel has a lot of sex jokes. Seriously, phallic puns are everywhere in this book, which also suggests various homerotic bonds between men. Scholars could spend years debating whether Ishmael’s friendship with Queequeg would be best described as a love story, a bromance, or a man-crush.
Cheat sheet: Atlas Shrugged , a lengthy novel that dramatizes the philosophical musings of Ayn Rand, is the ultimate “sticking it to the man” story. The book follows a group of brave industrialists as they rebel against the corrupt government during hard financial times.
Talking point: As a fictional case study in Rand’s Objectivist principles, Atlas Shrugged is still controversial 55 years after its publication. Liberals have criticized it for its pro-capitalist stance, and some conservatives hate it for its explicit depictions of sex and anti-Chrisitian views. Meanwhile, others simply find the book long-winded and poorly written. But due to its popularity with Rand’s libertarian followers, the novel remains widely read in the 21st century.