The best books that only get better with time

Susan Scarf Merrell Author Of Shirley
By Susan Scarf Merrell

Who am I?

I’m a writer, a teacher of writers in the MFA program at Stony Brook Southampton, and one of the founding directors of the novel incubation program, BookEnds. In the course of a year, I read as many as 125 novels. It can be tiring on the eyes, but I really love what I do. And each year, I make sure to return to some of my old favorites, the books that keep giving back to me more and more with each reading. Some of these books were tough to love at first, but over time, they’ve become the most important, loved novels in my library. Not everything or everyone needs to be easy to love!


I wrote...

Shirley

By Susan Scarf Merrell,

Book cover of Shirley

What is my book about?

I wrote Shirley: A Novel, a fiction based on the life of the novelist Shirley Jackson, whose work I’ve visited and revisited countless times in my life. Shirley is the story of a young woman who lives with Shirley Jackson and her husband for about half a year, and during that time becomes obsessed with the fantasy that Jackson is as capable of evil as one of her fictional characters. I wrote this book because I was interested in the way we always imagine we know the writers of the books we read, when actually we only know what they’ve imagined. Each time I reread Jackson, I see new layers in her work. It keeps giving back to me in fresh, new ways.

The books I picked & why

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The Odyssey

By Homer, Emily Wilson (translator),

Book cover of The Odyssey

Why this book?

One book I try to read every year is Homer’s Odysseus, the story of crafty Odysseus’ ten-year journey home from Troy at the end of the Trojan War. Along the way, he bests a cyclops, has an affair with Circe and another with Calypso, visits the land of the dead, and makes his way successfully past the sirens who lure most men to watery deaths. Once home, he meets his son Telemachus again for the first time in two decades. The two men then kill the suitors who, believing Odysseus dead, want to marry his wife and take over his kingdom. I love Emily Wilson’s vibrant translation. 

The Odyssey

By Homer, Emily Wilson (translator),

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked The Odyssey as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The first great adventure story in the Western canon, The Odyssey is a poem about violence and the aftermath of war; about wealth, poverty and power; about marriage, family and identity; and about travellers, hospitality and the changing meanings of home in a strange world.

This vivid new translation-the first by a woman-matches the number of lines in the Greek original, striding at Homer's sprightly pace. Emily Wilson employs elemental, resonant language and an iambic pentameter to produce a translation with an enchanting "rhythm and rumble" that avoids proclaiming its own grandeur. An engrossing tale told in a compelling new…


Moby-Dick

By Herman Melville,

Book cover of Moby-Dick

Why this book?

Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick is a book that only became understandable after multiple readings. When I was younger, I was bored struggling through this book; I didn’t enjoy the whaling history or whale biology and none of it added up to a novel. Still, I wanted to know why so many people believed it was the finest novel ever written. And now, having read the book at least a dozen times, I see that Melville’s wild construction justifies the epic confrontation between whale and man. I see the relationship of the Old Testament God to the White Whale that Ahab cannot best. I can honestly say that I love this book I once hated.

Moby-Dick

By Herman Melville,

Why should I read it?

12 authors picked Moby-Dick as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Melville's tale of the whaling industry, and one captain's obsession with revenge against the Great White Whale that took his leg. Classics Illustrated tells this wonderful tale in colourful comic strip form, offering an excellent introduction for younger readers. This edition also includes a biography of Herman Melville and study questions, which can be used both in the classroom or at home to further engage the reader in the work at hand.


Beloved

By Toni Morrison,

Book cover of Beloved

Why this book?

Toni Morrison’s magnificent Beloved is another novel that is deeper and more interesting each time I read it. It is, I think, a perfect novel, filled with heart and character and emotional truth. No American, certainly, can truly understand our history without reading this story of an escaped slave who murders her own child rather than allow her to be brought back to slavery, and then is haunted by the daughter’s ghost. What a beautiful and redemptive book, perhaps the most important novel written in my lifetime.

Beloved

By Toni Morrison,

Why should I read it?

22 authors picked Beloved as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Toni Morrison was a giant of her times and ours... Beloved is a heart-breaking testimony to the ongoing ravages of slavery, and should be read by all' Margaret Atwood, New York Times

Discover this beautiful gift edition of Toni Morrison's prize-winning contemporary classic Beloved

It is the mid-1800s and as slavery looks to be coming to an end, Sethe is haunted by the violent trauma it wrought on her former enslaved life at Sweet Home, Kentucky. Her dead baby daughter, whose tombstone bears the single word, Beloved, returns as a spectre to punish her mother, but also to elicit her…


As I Lay Dying

By William Faulkner,

Book cover of As I Lay Dying

Why this book?

I always try to find reasons to read William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, the painfully sad story of a family hauling their mother’s body to her hometown in order to bury her. Addie Bundren’s life has been sad and dreary, but the path to her resting place is even more so, replete with flood and fire, as well as a post-death monologue that contains one of the most psychologically complete rationalizations in literary history. Every time I read this book, I understand each of the Bundren family members more deeply, and have greater sympathy for the yoke their circumstance has harnessed them to.

As I Lay Dying

By William Faulkner,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked As I Lay Dying as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The death and burial of Addie Bundren is told by members of her family, as they cart the coffin to Jefferson, Mississippi, to bury her among her people. And as the intense desires, fears and rivalries of the family are revealed in the vernacular of the Deep South, Faulkner presents a portrait of extraordinary power - as epic as the Old Testament, as American as Huckleberry Finn.


We Have Always Lived in the Castle

By Shirley Jackson, Thomas Ott (illustrator),

Book cover of We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Why this book?

Last, but most important to me, is Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, an awesomely deceptive novel about two outcast sisters in a decaying mansion. Murder, resentful villagers, and a love interest who threatens the status quo power this tale. It’s funny as hell, its devious narrator is a genius at revelation, and the story itself is gripping and true to human nature. A small gift that constantly reveals new layers and complexity, and a fantastic read to boot. 

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

By Shirley Jackson, Thomas Ott (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

12 authors picked We Have Always Lived in the Castle as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Her greatest book ... at once whimsical and harrowing, a miniaturist's charmingly detailed fantasy sketched inside a mausoleum ... the deeper we sink, the deeper we want to go' Donna Tartt

Living in the Blackwood family home with only her sister Constance and her Uncle Julian for company, Merricat just wants to preserve their delicate way of life. But ever since Constance was acquitted of murdering the rest of the family, the world isn't leaving the Blackwoods alone. And when Cousin Charles arrives, armed with overtures of friendship and a desperate need to get into the safe, Merricat must do…


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