Same spiel, different list. Each book had to be vetted for enjoyment and quality. Great books I'm not crazy about were skipped and trashy books that I could read over and over again were dispensed with. In no particular order and heavily annotated:
Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens: Can I just say how much I love that the quintessential rags to riches novel isn't American? Dickens' Realism is at a height here, providing backgrounds on all major players in the story. It never feels tired or slow. It's truly a lovely novel to read.
The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood: Classify its genre however you want to. Atwood's dystopic novel envisioning a future where women are categorized by abilities--pregnancy, housekeeper, trophy wife--is horrifying and enraging in the best way possible.
Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill: You'll pick up on a pattern real quick here. I really love Gothic literature. This modern Gothic novel about a rock musician acquiring a haunted artifact that sets out to destroy his life is brilliant. I'd almost argue it's better than anything his father (Stephen King) has written in over twenty years, but that suggests that they have any similarities beyond their lineage.
Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen: I could have picked any Jane Austen novel and been happy. But let's face it: if there's one thing I love more than a good scary story, it's a story that picks apart the conventions of a good scary story. This Gothic satire is more relevant now than it was at the time of its publication (mainly because the publishers sat on it until the Gothic novel was out of fashion) as a work of criticism and historical research.
Cane by Jean Toomer: Part memoir, part short story collection, part novel, and part poetry anthology, Cane is one of the most haunting and aggressive looks at the lives of multiracial citizens in America. The only disappointing part about this book is that it isn't any longer.
Awakening by Kate Chopin: The eponymous feminist novel before feminism had a name. Kate Chopin explores the psyche of a woman who is not happy in her marriage and has to choose between her own sanity and the image of her family. The prose is mesmerizing and some of the scenes are still startling over one hundred years after publication.
The Dubliners by James Joyce: I'd argue this is the greatest collection of short stories ever written. They all share a singular theme--the ability of the Dublin lifestyle to immobilize its citizens--and even interconnect to a certain extent. There are so many ways to read and interpret these tight little tales that it would take you a long time to grow tired of them.
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote: While this book is responsible for the horrid misnomer "non-fiction novel," it's so well composed that I'm willing to overlook that horrible phrase. This is the true crime novel that Capote put so much effort into that he struggled to write again. It's a life's work of experience as a fiction and essay writer condensed into a startling look at murder.
Carrie by Stephen King: I love epistolary novels. Stephen King's first novel that was rescued from the trash-bin by his wife is arguably his best. Told through newspaper clippings, interviews, and articles published after the disastrous prom, Carrie refuses to give the audience an easy answer as to how or why Carrie White and her enemies were pushed to the breaking point on what should have been the happiest night of their high school lives.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee: A novel for all ages. To Kill a Mockingbird is a beautiful and cohesive look at a small town where the color of a man's skin can dictate innocence or guilt without a stitch of evidence in play.
And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie: This is my favorite mystery novel for a simple reason: it stumped almost everyone. Christie was so tight in her prose, so subtle in her clues, that she had to write an addendum to the novel explaining who did what when why and how. The concept behind the book was so startling that people were shocked to not have a tidy little answer at the end. That's brilliant without even taking into consideration the quality of prose.
Zombie by Joyce Carol Oates: Unlike Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates is willing to admit she writes horror novels. This intimate and disturbing look into the mind of a developmentally disabled man obsessed with the idea of turning a high school boy into his sex slave through lobotomy is one of the most shocking things I've ever read. That the prose so easily rises above mere schlock and grips you in spite of its content is a testament to a phenomenal writer.
The Oresteia by Aeschylus: While Oedipus Rex is perhaps the most commonly read of the Greek tragedies, I believe more people would take an interest in this theatrical history if The Oresteia trilogy replaced the other play on school curriculum. A family becomes so obsessed with the laws of revenge that they bring about a trial to be presided over by Athena herself to decided if it will be the law of blood or the law of humanity that oversees all justice for as long as the earth shall hold live.
Conjure Wife by Fritz Leiber: Zombie is shocking all the way through. Conjure Wife has the scariest page of prose I've ever read. It's hard to imagine that was has become a rote tradition of the horror genre originated in such a fast and well-mannered novel about modern witchcraft. It's even harder to imagine that the twist still works in context after Hollywood ran it into the ground.
Rosemary's Baby by Ira Levin: This is, without a doubt, my favorite horror novel of all time. Levin's prose is so spot-on that Roman Polanski essentially shot the book, line by line, dialog by dialog, to produce the film. The prose is clean and sophisticated, yet it still paints a disturbing image of a woman's psyche as she can't decide whether or not her life is crumbling around her.
Rites of Spring by Modris Eksteins: This is my favorite book about Modernism. Eksteins gets into the mindset of the people in Interwar Europe, starting with the controversial premiere of The Rite of Spring by Stravinski. It's a must read for any history fan.
Eats, Shoots, and Leaves by Lynne Truss: If you can only pick up one style guide, choose this book. Lynne Truss goes through all the major day to day rules of grammar and usage with prose that will make you laugh on every page.
Not Since Carrie: Forty Years of Broadway Musical Flops by Ken Mandelbaum: This is a must read for any theater fan. Mandelbaum gets into the nitty gritty of how some of the most talked about flops in the history of theater failed so miserably. It's funny and eye opening.
My Soul to Keep by Tananarive Due: Part romance, part horror story, part meditation on the power of faith, this novel about a woman discovering the real life existence of immortals is one of the most beautifully crafted novels I've ever laid my eyes on.
Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett: What can I say about this absurdist masterpiece? Other than, of course, that it works just as well (if not better) on the page than it does on the stage.
The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh: This play is not for the faint of heart. An author of controversial short stories and his mentally challenged brother are locked away in a dystopian prison. The author is accused of the heinous murder of children because they are being killed exactly how he writes the deaths in his stories. The wordplay is sharp and the revelations at the end disturbing.
Any Complete Collection of H.P. Lovecraft: Lovecraft probably wrote enough stories that anyone can find one work that makes them happy. He wrote comedy, horror, science fiction, fantasy, adventure, and romance in his lifetime working on the pulp magazine circuit. The recurring theme is the relationship between dreams, nightmares, and the great beyond. It's dense and enjoyable writing that you just want to chew on.
Daisy Miller by Henry James: I think this is the most perfect novella ever composed. James paints a tragic little story about the rise and fall of a young American woman vacationing in Europe to prove she is fiercely independent.
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad: This is one of the most engaging and debatable works of adventure fiction ever written. The writing is so thick, dense, and symbolic that I doubt any two people could work together and come up with the same interpretation for everything. That makes each reading a new adventure.
Ulysses by James Joyce: I love this book. I know countless people claim to read it when they haven't. I'm not one of them. I took a class on Joyce where we had to turn in papers every week on the 2-3 chapters we were reading at a time. It's a challenging and deeply rewarding novel that shows off every ounce of creativity Joyce had without becoming so obtuse that you can't understand him.
And with that, I conclude my list making for the foreseeable future. Thoughts? Share them below.