Delta of Venus , Anaïs Nin
One of the first women to prominently publish erotica, Nin is still a giant of the genre. The stories in this volume, mostly written in the 1940s for an “anonymous collector,” tackle every taboo without resorting to crudeness or shock effect. Highly literary, sensual and lushly written, it’s a book to keep under your pillow.
Tropic of Cancer , Henry Miller
Well, who else should we nestle up beside Anaïs than her most famous lover? This now-classic was banned in America for some 27 years after its initial 1934 publication, and though its famously foul language isn’t as provocative as it once was, we think it earns its spot here with its masterful juxtaposition of poetry and profanity on every page — or even every sentence. If that’s not a masterful evocation of sex on a literary level, we don’t know what is.
Vox , Nicholson Baker
We might have included any of a number of novels by Baker, whom the New York Times Magazine once called “The Mad Scientist of Smut,” but we’re going with his hilarious and very steamy 1992 phone-sex novel, a copy of which Monica Lewinsky famously gifted to Bill Clinton. Hopefully it will get you in slightly less trouble than it did the two of them.
Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair , Pablo Neruda
As far as we’re concerned, “Neruda” is Spanish for “Swoon.” Or at least that’s how we feel when we read this gorgeous collection, first published when the author was 19 and full of the attendant teenage intensity of feeling — only much, much better than yours was. “I want to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees,” he croons. That sounds very nice.
The Swimming-Pool Library , Alan Hollinghurst
Dark, impeccably written, and relentlessly entertaining, Hollinghurst’s tale of a young London dandy in the pre-AIDS early ’80s caused a stir when it was originally published. But the book is less scandalous than it is wise and winkingly sultry — the perfect combination, if you ask us.
Bad Behavior , Mary Gaitskill
The sex in Gaitskill’s short stories isn’t always sexy, but it’s always provocative, probing the depths of the human experience, asking questions that might not have answers. Which is pretty sexy to us. If you’re not into that intellectual explanation, though, there are also a few traditionally titillating stories (one of which formed the basis for the film Secretary, which is very mild in comparison), enhanced by Gaitskill’s fine prose and sharp, strange bent.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover , D.H. Lawrence
Well, we couldn’t leave off this classic of sexy fiction, could we? Just ask the ladies of Mad Men how they feel about it.
Endless Love , Scott Spencer
You know this contemporary classic is going to be an intense read from the very first sentence: “When I was seventeen and in full obedience to my heart’s most urgent commands, I stepped far from the pathway of normal life and in a moment’s time ruined everything I loved — I loved so deeply, and when the love was interrupted, when the corporeal body of love shrank back in terror and my own body was locked away, it was hard for others to believe that a life so new could suffer so irrevocably.” Whew. For everyone who secretly knows that they’ll never feel as passionate as they did when they were a teenager, this book is for you.
Story of O , Pauline Réage
This as it close as this list is going to get to the aforementioned Fifty Shades of Grey. All the pieces are there — sado-masochism, a woman being introduced to sexual submissiveness, questionable naiveté — but with a painterly touch. As The New York Times Book Review put it, the fact “that Pauline Réage is a more dangerous writer than the Marquis de Sade follows from the fact that art is more persuasive than propaganda.” Persuasive indeed.
Les Liaisons Dangereuses , Choderlos de Laclos
Because if there’s anything that the French know, it’s that nothing is as sexy as control — except perhaps the lack thereof.