As Valentine’s Day (not to mention yet another cold night) approaches, you may find yourself in the mood for love. But what if you don’t? Never fear, because all you have to do is pick up a book. Yes, reading is sexy — especially when you’re reading one of these books, which range from literary fiction (with, ahem, some notable scenes) to famously romantic plays to “highbrow academia porn” to real literary erotica. After the jump, check out 50 books guaranteed to get you in the mood — or at least provide you with some seasonally appropriate train reading — and chime in with any titillating lit missing here in the comments.
The Virgins, Pamela Erens
Overheated boarding school romance has never been so delicious. And then there’s that voyeuristic, overly imaginative narrator for an extra layer of filmy allure.
A Sport and a Pastime, James Salter
Here’s another book with a narrator whose accounts are half fantasy, whose breath fogs up the window of a love affair. But what a love affair. No one writes like Salter and no one writes sex like Salter; his sentences will make you ache. And not just in that way.
The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton
Every page of this book is steeped in want. Reserved, quiet, desperate, insane want. Oy.
Possession, A.S. Byatt
Not much is sexier (at least to a certain segment of the population) than poetry, epistolary romance mysteries, and brilliant scholars letting their hair down.
The Lover, Marguerite Duras
Duras’ erotic atmosphere — the book is about her affair with an older man — bleeds into her prose, until everything you look at pulses with a strange, luminous charge. Also an incredibly visual book, and you know what they say about that.
Vox, Nicholson Baker
Hey, it got Bill Clinton in the mood. Then again…
All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost, Lan Samantha Chang
This is highbrow academia porn, featuring the sexiest poetry workshop that has ever been committed to paper.
Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
Because Mr. Darcy does it for just about everybody.
Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë
And Heathcliff does it for everyone Darcy leaves cold.
The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides
There’s nothing sexy about a suicide, but there is something remarkable about that collective voice of the small town’s adolescent boys, forever looking in, forever fascinated, forever noting the smallest movements in the most beautiful girls they’ve ever seen. A book that sets in like a mood and hums for days.
The Secret History, Donna Tartt
This book has everything: hot young Greek scholars, Dionysian rituals, incestuous love triangles, passions drawn taut as bowstrings. You know, if any of that works for you.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Pearl Poet
Three of the best seduction scenes in all of literature, told in parallel with three glorious hunting scenes. The metaphor may be obvious, but you’d be forgiven for getting a little worked up anyway.
Orlando, Virginia Woolf
Equally sexy as a lady and as a man, Orlando is one of literature’s most alluring characters. And though you probably won’t wake up with the opposite equipment tomorrow morning, you might, after reading this book, be inspired to try a few new things.
Death in Venice, Thomas Mann
The gold standard in all-encompassing, overwhelming, secret unrequited love. Just don’t take the message that death via cholera is the only way out.
Bad Behavior, Mary Gaitskill
The sex in Gaitskill’s stories isn’t always good and is sometimes quite terrifying. But just try reading this collection without getting just a little hot and bothered. I’m quite sure it’s never been done.
Much Ado About Nothing, William Shakespeare
Shakespeare is famous for his sexual innuendos (for starters: here, “nothing” means both “noting,” as in “looking at,” and also the, ahem, space between a lady’s legs) and complicated, genre-bending romance plots, so several of his plays would have done here. But this one leads the pack in witty banter, which as everyone knows, is just about the sexiest method of communication.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover, D.H. Lawrence
Famous for opening to certain parts all by itself.
The Folding Star, Alan Hollinghurst
Smart, sexy, and one of the most convincing expressions of obsession ever written, so real it seeps into your pores.
Endless Love, Scott Spencer
This book begins thusly: “When I was seventeen and in full obedience to my heart’s most urgent commands, I stepped far from the pathway of normal life and in a moment’s time ruined everything I loved — I loved so deeply, and when the love was interrupted, when the corporeal body of love shrank back in terror and my own body was locked away, it was hard for others to believe that a life so new could suffer so irrevocably.” It will end by making you feel things, maybe just for a few moments, as deeply as you did as a teenager. So, you know, watch out.
Story of O, Pauline Réage
Frequently cited as one of the most erotic works of literature of all time, but without being the least bit trashy. As The New York Times Book Review put it, the fact “that Pauline Réage is a more dangerous writer than the Marquis de Sade follows from the fact that art is more persuasive than propaganda.” Smart and smutty: a delightful combination.
Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel García Márquez
A secret affair that blossoms into a lifelong love story. That’s what we all want, isn’t it? Someone to say, “I have waited for this opportunity for more than half a century, to repeat to you once again my vow of eternal fidelity and everlasting love.”
Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
TO BE CLEAR: it’s not the love story between a man and an underage girl that should get you going. It’s the idea of intense, blinding passion that tucks you up under its arm and proceeds to deface your entire life. That, and the incredible writing, of course.
Mating, Norman Rush
If looking up words turns you on, reach for Norman Rush. If not, how about attractive, charismatic intellectuals exploring, well, just about everything about each other?
Dangerous Liaisons, Choderlos de Laclos
As if the epistolary form weren’t alluring enough (all those hesitation blots and hearts torn open on the page, ah me), all of these letters are just dripping with revenge and sex and seduction. You’ll be taken completely in.
Fear of Flying, Erica Jong
Ladies and gentlemen, the zipless fuck. For the uninformed: “The zipless fuck is absolutely pure. It is free of ulterior motives. There is no power game. The man is not ‘taking’ and the woman is not ‘giving.’ No one is attempting to cuckold a husband or humiliate a wife. No one is trying to prove anything or get anything out of anyone. The zipless fuck is the purest thing there is. And it is rarer than the unicorn. And I have never had one.”
The Epicure’s Lament, Kate Christensen
Hugo Whittier is one flirtatious, outré, and yes, totally sexy cad. Also, he can cook.
My Secret Garden, Nancy Friday
I mean, this is just a collection of real women’s sexual fantasies, so. You may even strike on some new ones to add to your own collection.
Under the Roofs of Paris, Henry Miller
You didn’t think you were going to get out of this list without an offering from Mr. Miller, did you? The traditional choice would be Tropic of Cancer, of course, but let’s go instead with this incredibly dirty little novel, which was what came out when a bookseller commissioned an erotic novel from Miller for a dollar a page. Erotic it is, and also funny, and also smart, and if those things don’t all put you in the mood, well, time to start reading a different list.
Delta of Venus, Anaïs Nin
Speaking of Miller, let’s speak of Nin, who probably outdoes her lover in the art of gorgeous literary explorations of the totally taboo.
The Clan of the Cave Bear, Jean M. Auel
The first book in Auel’s legendary series about the lives of prehistoric humans. Read: Cro-Magnon love lives as written by a Mensa member. A must for anyone on the Paleo diet.
The Complete Claudine, Colette
Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette must be one of the sexiest authors to have ever lived (hello, she was a dancer at the Moulin Rouge), and so it’s only to be expected that her famous Claudine novels, widely acknowledged as semi-autobiographical, would be deliciously titillating, humming with all the passion of a teenager exploring sex and everything else she can get her hands on.
Rubyfruit Jungle, Rita Mae Brown
Rubyfruit is famous for being an early example of a literary American novel with explicit portrayals of lesbian relationships, and while that concept isn’t as scandalous as it was in 1973, the book is still just as sexy.
Lord Byron: The Major Works, Lord Byron
For anyone with a soft spot for those who are “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” And for anyone who has ever fell prey to that inevitable rhyme in “Don Juan”: “A little she strove, and much repented,/ And whispering, ‘I will ne’er consent’ — consented.”
Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, Pablo Neruda
These poems have been used as seduction tools since they were first committed to paper. There’s no arguing with the scoreboard.
Couples, John Updike
Updike’s sex is famously frank, almost clinical, and totally tied up in social commentary. But somehow, that makes it all the better.
The Sleeping Beauty Trilogy, Anne Rice
Anne Rice will ruin your childhood. And then you’ll thank her for it.
The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
Sure, there’s not that much actual sex in this book, but there’s a hell of a lot of devotion — and sometimes that’s even better. Also this: “He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning-fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her. At his lips’ touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete.”
The Magus, John Fowles
The sexiest nigh-impenetrable postmodern doorstop you could ever hope to crack open.
Story of the Eye, Georges Bataille
Now, be careful: this book won’t get everyone in the mood. But if you’re rather on the wild side and/or a teenager, this brilliant and terrifying novella of perversion should be on your list.
Peyton Place, Grace Metalious
Small town. Dark secrets. Banned bestseller. Read it and then squint at your neighbors.
Fanny Hill, John Cleland
The sexiest book available in the 18th century.
Foxfire, Joyce Carol Oates
What better to get your motor running than the feverish, wild-child adventures of a 1950s girl gang?
Next, James Hynes
The winner of Salon’s 2011 Good Sex Awards has one hell of a good sex scene. And some other pretty good parts, too.
Damage, Josephine Hart
Hart explores the dark side of passion and extreme obsession in this slight, searing novel. Not for the faint of, oh you know.
Close Range: Wyoming Stories, Annie Proulx
You know why.
The Princess Bride, William Goldman
Because you know what’s really sexy? Laughing nonstop. Also True Love. Also that subtitle!
The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
If only because it’ll give you that little impetus to remind yourself that you’ve got something that Papa, er, Jake, doesn’t.
Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell
It may be a huge, sappy melodrama, but then there are those lines — “You should be kissed and often, and by someone who knows how” — that make you want to stay in bed all day. With someone else, of course.
Laughable Loves, Milan Kundera
Love is a game, after all. Or rather, love is many games, not all of them nice, not all of them pretty, not all of them games.
The Kama Sutra