Publishers Weekly recently asked Laura Frost, author of The Problem with Pleasure: Modernism and Its Discontents to name The 10 Best Modernist Books (in English).
For the more ambitious readers the list provides a kind of alternate beach-reading list. Frost explains: “It’s going to be a long, hot summer. Why unwind with the latest mystery or light comic novel when you can grapple with some of the most demanding works ever written in English? Think of it as Pilates–or rock climbing–for your brain.” Frost also provides some tips for reading these works:
1. Take your time: you’re not just reading for plot here; you’re reading for the play of the words on the page, the structure, the overall effect. 2. Be curious: if something is daunting or disorienting, ask yourself what makes it so. 3. Play the game: each book has different principles. The more you figure them out, the more you’ll enjoy reading. 4. Don’t get bogged down: when you come across something like the notoriously difficult “Oxen of the Sun” episode of Ulysses, do your best but keep going until something clicks for you. 5. Finally, re-read. Joyce once claimed, “The demand that I make of my reader is that he [sic] should devote his whole life to reading my works.” That kind of commitment is not required, but it helps.
Here’s the list, arranged chronologically, and you can read the article for Frost’s commentary on each work:
1. Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
2. Blast: Review of the Great English Vortex
3. T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land
4. James Joyce, Ulysses (1922)
5. Virginia Woolf, To The Lighthouse
6. William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying
7. Djuna Barnes, Nightwood
8. Jean Rhys, Good Morning, Midnight
9. Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
10. Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot