Bleak House by Charles Dickens (Bantam, $7). Dickens’ famous indictment of a massive, grindingly slow, utterly incomprehensible legal system is also an investigation of the essential fragility of human identity and its possible repair through the healing force of narrative. And the master’s prose here is at its wondrous best.
The Awkward Age by Henry James (Penguin, $13). People are talking, and the more they talk, the more frightening the novel becomes, as it reveals the corrosive hypocrisies of a society without moral ground. Nanda Brookenham is a heroine of immense tenderness and great depths of feeling. When Nanda cried, so did I.
Either/Or by Søren Kierkegaard (Penguin, $18). Written under several pseudonyms, this work is the novel as philosophy or philosophy as a novel. Every character is persuasive—from the fictional editor, Eremita; to A., the aesthete; to B., the ethicist; to the seducer, Johannes, who tracks his erotic prey, Cordelia, with chilling stealth. A masterpiece told in many voices.
Middlemarch by George Eliot (Signet, $8). Eliot’s “story of provincial life”—with its struggles, sorrows, petty ambitions, and dashed idealism—bears rereading many times. Psychologically subtle, intellectually rigorous, and emotionally powerful, the book never leaves me.
The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson (Gramercy, $7). Every time I open this volume, I am startled by the poet’s language and am reminded of what the English language can do—its astounding flexibility and richness. Dickinson’s poetry is difficult, paradoxical, painful, and joyous. Reading it makes you feel as if you are wandering around in the dense terrain of a human soul.
The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud (Avon, $7). Nobody knows why we dream, but Freud’s journey into this mystery remains one of the best reading experiences of my life.