What are the five most important works of fiction that you read, and why?
Please note I do not say favorite, but most important.
osewalrus read all of his choices as a teenager.
Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien. I believe I was ten when I first read this. The combination of the realistic and the idealistic may have been what got me. The noble and the human -- well, hobbit -- elements. The world building and the characters. The pacing -- the idea that the book does not end after the obvious climax, but integrates that into the setting. The maps, the geneologies, the extra material in the appendices, way before we had DVDs with extra material. The tone, nostalgiac and elegiac, which I associate with autumn. The way there's always more to the world. It also introduced me to literary criticism, as I read everything I could find that talked about Tolkien.
Ulysses, by James Joyce. mneme said that it talk him a different way to read. That's certainly part of it. It's a demonstration of what can be done with the written word, and a prime example of an author having fun with his craft. The range of human experience, and the odd combination of how accessible and how opaque it is -- sometimes opaque in ways Joyce never intended, as obvious references for his time are not obvious for ours. The way a note scribbled in the margin by my mother, who'd long forgotten what it meant, led to a delightful time of research as I eventually discovered what it meant. The way Joyce loves people and loves cities. The sheer celebration of the flawed wonder of our world. I first read this in college, so I was somewhere between 18 and 20, I believe.
Playing strictly fairly, The Once and Future King, by T. H. White. Stretching a point, let's count OaFK; The Mists of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley; and Idylls of the Queen, by Phyllis Ann Karr, as one entry.
I read the White when I was young. I remember reading it on a plane from Florida, and I don't recall if that was a first read or a re-read. I'm not sure if I was ten, twelve, or fourteen. Malory compiled the stores of King Arthur that were available to him, and he became the definitive voice of the Arthurian corpus for his age. T. H. White is the Malory of the twentieth century. He also has a way of explaining things that I like, never condescending, but explaining why Lancelot acts as he does, why Mordred is so twisted, how Guinever's limited options shaped her actions and her personality, making all characters understandable and the good ones loveable. And, throughout, White and Arthur wrestle always with the question of how to create a society where people behave decently, and wrestle honestly, not using straw man logic. I could never understand why some readers thought White's portrayal of Guinever was negative.
The Bradley is a feminist response to the Arthurian corpus in general, and to White in particular, as her Arthur is clearly as well meaning as his. It is a masterpiece. The work is not flawless -- too often, characters repeat the points Bradley wants to make in ways that seem clumsy; too often, it reads as "If only Morgaine had not had silly scruples, she could have manipulated Arthur, as women, the novel seems to imply, are meant to do, and created a pagan paradise. But, that does not matter to the question of the work's importance. With perfect timing, Bradley hit a nerve, combining feminist issues with Arthuriana. I read this one in high school, as a teenager.
The Karr is a bridge between the two. It looks at the Arthurian corpus with a feminist eye, but it looks always at what the medieval sources say. Where Bradley changes precisely what happened, and with that, what it implied, Karr reminds the reader of what Malory and other sources said, and then, examines what the means. For example, one of Morgan le Fay's nasty plots follows immediately on Arthur sending her the dead body of her paramour, "as a present". Granted, Arthur has cause to be angry -- Morgan arranged for her paramour to kill him -- but her reaction is understandable as something more than villainy for the sake of villainy. This was a demonstration of how even events whose facts are not in dispute can be interpreted differently. I read this one in high school, as a teenager.
The Illuminatus! Trilogy, by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson. This taught me the beginnings of appropriate humility, despite being dated, and probably somewhat offensive by 21st century standards. It also introduced me to some of the techniques of writing that I later saw in Joyce. I read this one as a teenager.
The Language of the Night, by Ursula K. Le Guin, if non-fiction is allowed. Her essay, "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie" is tremendously important to the study of fantasy, and is singlehandedly responsible for Kenneth Morris' The Book of the Three Dragons coming back into print (Thank you, Cold Spring Press -- and thank you for putting in the last third!). Her essay "Science Fiction and Mrs. Brown" is also important, and helped explain some of why I liked Lord of the Rings. I think I was a teenager when I read this one.
Red Moon and Black Mountain, by Joy Chant, if we're limiting it to fiction. When I was growing up, most of the books that I remember as teaching me stuff about life, people, and young people coming of age, have male protagonists, and this was no exception. It's a There and Back Again, people from our world helping a fantasy world against the Dark Lord, but the details -- sigh. The male protagonist, Oliver, gradually comes to understand how the boisterous girls of the culture he lives with become silent women, and is able to explain to a girl who is becoming a woman that he cannot return her affection because he knows that he will leave her world, using her twin brother as a coded example, explaining that he cannot become her brother's sworn companion, adding that it did not come up, because her brother is too young. She tells him that it is not his fault that she is older than her (twin) brother. The other bit I remember is that, at the end, when he complains to one of the gods of the world that he has lost his innocence, the god asks if men have sunk so low that innocence is the best that they can aspire to, that virtus is not ignorance of evil, but resistance to evil. I think I was a teenager when I read this one.
I am pondering trying this meme on movies, and on graphic novels.