The Patrick Melrose Novels, Edward St. Aubyn
This series might be the ultimate summer companion — both highly literary and frankly scrumptious in all its drama, drugs, decadence, and degradation. You’ll binge-read it like you found it on Netflix.
The Maddaddam trilogy, Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood’s prose always seems to me like I could be best friends with it: it’s smart, worldly, a little snarky, often quite funny, and I want to, you know, hang out with it all the time. This trilogy describes different facets of and angles on a near future that seems oh so deeply possible, and will be the best summer friendship you ever make.
Area X: the Southern Reach Trilogy, Jeff VanderMeer
Consider these novels a kind of eco-horror, in which the secrets of the mysterious Area X are slowly revealed — though not without casualties of various kinds. Weird and paranoid, but also somehow elegant, these books will have you staying up all night with a flashlight, and possibly freaking out at kitchen mold.
Outlander, Diana Gabaldon
Eight massive tomes that detail a decades-long time-travel adventure-romance saga populated by sexy Scottish highlanders and feisty ladies. Yes, that’s right, cancel your plans.
The Rabbit Angstrom tetralogy, John Updike
These four books follow Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, arguably the best and most enduring literary “everyman,” from youth to death, as he tries, fails, tries again, fails some more, but goes on through his ordinary life, illuminated as if accidentally in Updike’s extraordinary prose.
My Struggle, Karl Ove Knausgaard
Knausgaard’s “autobiographical novels” were a literary sensation when first published in Norway, and they (the first four volumes that have been translated so far, at least) have made quite a splash here as well — direct, fresh, mysteriously compelling. Resistance is futile, folks.
The Henriad, William Shakespeare
Ahem, that’d be Shakespeare’s second tetralogy of historical plays: Richard II, Henry IV, Part 1, Henry IV, Part 2, and Henry V. Or, if you like, throw all the Henrys and Richards in there. Why not? Reading Shakespeare is one of life’s great pleasures, and I wouldn’t want to deprive you of any of it.
The Neapolitan Novels, Elena Ferrante
All the rage, as well you know, if you’re a regular reader of this space. And together, an extended, nuanced portrait of a complicated friendship that will take your breath away.
Shadow Country, Peter Matthiessen
A slight cheat, but there’s no keeping this one off the list. This master volume is billed as a “retelling of the Watson legend” — that is, the re-edited and combined mecha-version of his excellent ’90s trilogy (which he always meant to be one big long novel, as the lore goes) starring Edgar “Bloody” Watson. It won the National Book Award in 2008.
The Griffin & Sabine Trilogy, Nick Bantock
No better time than summer for a trilogy of artists’ love letters.
The Thomas Cromwell Series, Hilary Mantel
History junkies, you’ve probably already devoured all of these. But even you non-history heads out there, take a peep — Mantel’s prose is exciting and challenging on every page (just remember that “he” is basically always Cromwell), and the age-old story she tells manages to re-captivate no matter how many times you’ve seen it. Booker-palooza for a reason, this one.
A Dance to the Music of Time, Anthony Powell
If you really, really, really miss television (and don’t have a summer job), attempt this 12-volume series based on a painting by Nicolas Poussin. No, seriously, it’s funny.
The Ender series, Orson Scott Card
There are thousands of awesome SF series that could make this list (and a few more will be forthcoming), but the Ender books are just so endlessly delicious. Kids fighting in space! Major questions about the world! Plus, there are seven of them.
The Bridget Jones series, Helen Fielding
Hey, don’t be embarrassed. It’s summer, folks, and Bridget Jones thinks you look hot in that bikini.
Alexander the Great, Mary Renault
Half history, half fiction, all rich, resonant storytelling about one of the most compelling figures in history. Who cares where the man begins and the myth ends?
The Philip Marlowe Mysteries, Raymond Chandler
Misogynist? Sure. Hilariously anachronistic? Often. But no one writes mysteries like Chandler — his language is often gorgeous, his metaphors taut and glowing, and if nothing else, that Philip Marlowe is worth it — just hold your nose through all the sexist parts, and you’ll be fine.
The New York Trilogy, Paul Auster
Or, if you want to go in another direction, try the meta-detective-fiction of Paul Auster’s trilogy. Here’s a hint: both is better.
Brown Dog, Jim Harrison
Six witty novellas about Brown Dog, one of the best, most surprisingly compelling characters ever created — a semi-down-and-out, semi-Native-American, semi-everyman who has become a cult classic all unto himself.
The Earthsea Cycle, Ursula K. LeGuin
You guys: Ursula K. LeGuin 4-EVA. If you’ve never read her, start here, with her incredible, slim fantasy classic about Ged, a young wizard learning to make his way through the world. Featuring wizarding school way before you-know-which. NB: These books are technically young adult at this point, I suppose, though the books came out before young adult was a thing, so it doesn’t really count. And even if it does, who cares? They’re awesome.
The U.S.A. Trilogy, John dos Passos
This postmodern triumph, in three novels (The 42nd Parallel, 1919, and The Big Money) spanning some 1,300 pages, chronicles the first part of the 20th century better than almost any other book, or series of books, has done. Edmund Wilson called Dos Passos “the first American novelist to make the people of our generation talk as they actually did.”
The Barrytown Trilogy, Roddy Doyle
Doyle’s first three novels chronicle the exploits and adventures of the Rabbitte family, working-class Dubliners with a lot of love to spread around. These books manage to be both gritty and hilarious, both true-to-life and absurd. You shall be entertained.
Dune, Frank Herbert
One of the best loved SF series of all time (and one of the best-selling, too), the extensive Dune universe will keep you up to your ears in sand. Er, awesome adventures. Well, both. Plus, there’s the whole eco-angle that keeps it all relevant as the years tick on.
The Forsyte Saga, John Galsworthy
If what you’re particularly missing this summer is Downton Abbey, but wish, actually, that there was someone on that show who was more decidedly terrible, read this epic series. Hell, Galsworthy won the Nobel Prize for, as the judges wrote, “his distinguished art of narration which takes its highest form in The Forsyte Saga.” Can’t go wrong.
The Alexandria Quartet, Lawrence Durrell
Durrell’s incredible series takes as it subjects the city of Alexandria, love in all its forms, and the truth of perception — that is, you see as Durrell shows you the same events over and over from different angles, from different times, from different viewers, that nothing is necessarily as it seems, at least to you.
The Trilogy, Samuel Beckett
Beckett himself denied the idea that Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnameable made up a proper trilogy — and indeed, they don’t share much of anything, except that you can see Beckett become Beckett in them. For that, they shall occupy the last spot on this list, for those of you who probably weren’t watching any TV anyway. I can’t go on, I’ll go on.