Everybody knows that in the history of English prose fiction, there are important authors you shouldn’t miss. Unfortunately, some of those important authors wrote mostly “damned, thick, square books” (as the Duke of Gloucester was supposed to have said of Edward Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire), and actually setting out to read one of those doorstops can be an intimidating exercise.
Fear not — most authors of important doorstops have written shorter stuff which is also valid for getting your Have Read Important Author ticket punched. The shorter stuff will also give you an idea as to whether or not you might actually enjoy reading some of the author’s longer works (or, conversely, whether the mere thought of reading another paragraph by a certain author is enough to make you break out in hives.) Herewith, a tasting flight, as it were, of shorter works by a quartet of important authors:
Herman Melville, Typee. Moby-Dick is, of course, the Big Important Melville novel, just as Billy Budd is the Important Later Work, but Typee is the book that made him famous. It’s loosely based on Melville’s own experiences when he jumped ship off the whaler Acushnet in the Marquesas Islands, and is best described, in my opinion, as what a reader of science fiction would describe as a “first contact novel” — two cultures coming into contact at a historically significant moment. It made Melville briefly famous as “the man who lived with cannibals”; his fans, predictably, were disappointed when his next book wasn’t about cannibals at all.
(No, I’m not going to recommend “Bartleby the Scrivener“. But it’s even shorter than Typee, if that’s your main criterion.)
James Joyce, Dubliners. A collection of short stories, this time, by the author of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses, and Finnegans Wake. They’re written in a considerably more straightforward manner than any of the later works, but should suffice to give you an idea of Joyce’s favorite topics and themes. If you don’t want to read the whole collection, go for “Araby” and “The Dead”; if you want more Joyce after you’re finished, move on to Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
Henry James, The Beast in the Jungle. Henry James specialized in the painstaking depiction of subtle emotions and complex relationships; his prose style is somewhere between exquisite and maddening depending upon your tolerance level. (H. G. Wells memorably described it as “a magnificent but painful hippopotamus resolved at any cost, even at the cost of its dignity, upon picking up a pea that has got into the corner of its den.”) But the last paragraph of this novella hits like a hammer in spite of it all. If you decide that you like James — and many writers do — go on to The Golden Bowl and The Ambassadors.
William Faulkner, The Bear. Faulkner’s longer works are notorious for their dense prose and their complex story lines, but The Bear is about as straightforward a Faulkner story as you’re going to get. It’s also a story in which exciting stuff actually happens, since it deals with the hunt for the giant bear Old Ben — so you’ve got guns and knives and bear hounds and good old boys running around in the woods and killing things. If you like The Bear, there’s a lot more Faulkner out there waiting for you (but I’d advise working your way up to novels like The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom. Some books are like marathons . . . you’ve got to get into training for them, first.)