1. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
Though To the Lighthouse and Orlando occasionally compete for the representation of my Woolf-obsession, Mrs. Dalloway is the novel I recommend for Woolf-virgins. She's at the height of her powers here in 1925 in this story about life, love, and the moments of being that define who we are.
If you ever wanted to read a Holocaust novel that's about anything but the Holocaust, Sophie's Choice is a great pick. If you're a downtrodden editorial assistant or aspiring writer, find solace in the character of Stingo. (This transference works even better if you are a South to North transplant). Though the romance in this novel borders on melodrama, it's descriptive moments of Brooklyn and love and sex are completely transcendent; Stryon's lyricism borders on book porn. This novel's first read is so enjoyable you will spend the rest of your life trying to duplicate it.
3. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Probably the most beautiful book written in English by a non-native English speaker. Perhaps it's Nabokov's Russianness that turns his appreciation of the English language into our pure, unadulterated joy. And with a tricky subject manner, he still makes us love and despise these characters equally. When I talk to people who haven't read this novel I just think, what? What are you doing? You know nothing until you have read Lolita.
Master of misanthropy, Bernhard's energy for hatred turns into an obsession with life through our failures and hopelessness in the face of fate. Our narrator recounts the suicide of his friend Wertheimer, who gave up at music school when he realized he couldn't compete with likes of Glenn Gould. Bernhard's endless repetition, his constant droning of sorrow and spitefulness becomes the chant of genius. You will want to read everything he's ever written. And you should.
I say with ease that this book changed my life and continues to change my life every single time I read it. Stumbling upon this thing when I'd just moved to New York and had no idea that Salinger had written anything else besides The Catcher in the Rye was a pure delight. His sheer brilliance at writing dialogue is, in my mind, unparalleled. His books are some of the only ones that can make me laugh out loud and weep like baby. Nine Stories comes in at a close second here, but Franny and Zooey is truly a religious experience.
After reading this book, the only thing I wanted to do with my life was write. I had no fucking idea that it was even possible to write books like this, and my whole body was jittery with excitement. Every single page of this thing is smart, moving, and stylish. If you are at all interested in the genesis of the nonfiction novel, or creative nonfiction, or if you're just into crime writing, oh holy Lord, get off your butt and get a copy of this book. In this same category I'd place Joan Didion's Slouching Towards Bethlehem and Janet Malcolm's excellent The Silent Woman.
7. I Love Dick by Chris Kraus
If you are a feminist, and you find yourself exasperated at trying to explain the difference in how art created by women is treated versus art created by men, then look no further for your BIBLE. This pseudo epistolary novel cum treatise on women's art and identity is so fucking good. It will incite a fire under your ass. The good kind. Her honesty and fierceness on sex, love, respect and never-ending struggle between the private and public make this a must-read.
8. Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald
Attempting to describe this book is like trying to describe the Mona Lisa. Why is it so transfixing? I could offer my own explanation, something to do with it's hypnotic rhythm and it's love of sorrow and nostalgia but, just, if you have the time and the energy, just. read. this.
9. Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon
Though I love his showier The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay almost equally, there is something so beautiful about this book that I return to it again and again, always finding something new in its pages. Grady is your typical washed up, pot-bellied, middle-aged novelist who's looking for something to quicken him - he finds it in James, a struggling student with serious issues, maybe a pathological liar. The two find themselves involved in a messy affair concerning Marilyn Monroe's fur-lined jacket she wore when she married Joe DiMaggio. The descriptions of James' writing versus Grady's writer's block are heartbreaking and beautifully written. The perfect winter book.
10. Atonement by Ian McEwan
If I could relive the first time I ever read the chapter when Cecila drops that goddamned vase into that goddamned fountain, I'd be a happy woman. Atonement has practically everything you could want from a novel and so much more. The sheer horror of this book, how quickly it turns from beautiful to horrible and yet somehow remains gorgeous throughout - it's McEwan's masterpiece and I don't think he'll ever be able to top it. Even if you aren't that jazzed about the plot (which I think is fantastic) McEwan's sentences are some of the best in English letters today.