We’ve all been there: nodding along vaguely when someone brings up Ulysses in casual conversation. Everyone has those books that they repeatedly pick up and then repeatedly put down. These skeletons in our literary closet always seem to sink to the bottom of our summer reading list, destined never to be finished. Maria Popova’s recent post on University of Paris professor Pierre Bayard’s controversial book How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read has got us thinking about how fluency in classic works of literature acts as a marker of a well read, culturally developed person. So, in case you’re interested in impersonating a more educated reader, we have compiled a little cheat sheet to guide you through 10 important books you probably haven’t read but whose cultural importance you should definitely understand. This way, you can save face at your next cocktail party — without sacrificing quality time with that Stephen King novel at the beach. (But hey, promise us you’ll give at least one of these a try before the year is out?)
Cheat sheet: Infinite Jest is long, with most editions topping 1000 pages. In the novel, Infinite Jest is the title of a movie that is so engrossing that its viewers become uninterested in anything other than viewing the film. When the master copy cartridge goes missing, chaos ensues. Most of the action takes place at an elite Boston tennis academy and a drug rehabilitation center. The story touches upon Quebec separatism, child abuse, and of course, an unwatchable, beautiful art film.
Talking point: In an interview with Salon David Foster Wallace summed up his intentions for the book: “I wanted to do something real American, about what it’s like to live in America around the millennium. There’s something particularly sad about it, something that doesn’t have very much to do with physical circumstances, or the economy, or any of the stuff that gets talked about in the news. It’s more like a stomach-level sadness.”