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The Desert Island Reading List

American University Literature Department professors discuss their favorite fiction.

American University Literature Department professors discuss their favorite fiction.

The onset of summer means vacations, sunburn, and hopefully a little beach reading. But if your classes are over, what should you read? You could get good dinner party fodder from The New York Times Best Seller list, or indulge in a guilty pleasure that you'll promptly forget.

But what about revisiting literary classics—or discovering hidden gems—that spark the imagination and nourish the soul? For tips on summer reading, we've turned to American University's Literature Department. In written summaries below, faculty members describe their all-time favorite works of fiction. If you're looking for book recommendations, this would be a great place to start.

Richard Sha

Bio: Professor; author, Perverse Romanticism: Aesthetics and Sexuality in Britain, 1750-1832; AU's 2012 Scholar-Teacher of the Year

Selection: The Echo Maker by Richard Powers

This is a stunning novel: beautifully written, brilliant, and a page-turner. At the center of this novel is Mark, a character who suffers a traumatic brain injury that leaves him with Capgras Syndrome, a disease that makes him think his real sister is an imposter, even though he recognizes that she looks like his sister. As the novel unfolds, Capgras Syndrome becomes a metaphor for human intimacy, about our simultaneous but contradictory need for closeness and selves that resist transparency. The novel is also about our need to love others but only on the condition that they can be known in the ways we need to know them. Only a handful of living writers have both this kind of intelligence and artistry: Rohinton Mistry, Chang-rae Lee, Gloria Naylor, Julia Alvarez, Ha Jin, and Junot Díaz.

David Keplinger

Bio: Associate professor; author of four poetry collections

Selection: "The Open Boat," a short story by Stephen Crane

Stephen Crane's "The Open Boat" first awakened me to the pleasures of reading beautifully crafted prose, and to the artist's role as interpreter of a natural world that would as soon swallow you up as save your life. It intensified my burgeoning belief that selfless human actions and even the words themselves can alter (and altar) the meaninglessness one feels into a heightened experience of being alive.

Erik Dussere

Bio: Associate professor; his book, America is Elsewhere, won the Mystery Writers of America's 2014 Edgar award in the Best Critical/Biographical category 

Selection: Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner

It's a big, difficult book written in big, difficult sentences, so it's not going to be everyone's bag of tea, but every time I read it I find I get absorbed again in those crazy, beautiful, overwrought sentences, the function of which is to keep the reader breathless, always running a little bit behind, always struggling to figure out what's going on in the book's reconstruction of the past, so that the prose enacts and dramatizes the difficulty of saying the things the book wants to say, because the past that is being reconstructed ultimately leads us to a heart-of-darkness revelation that places the history of race and slavery at the heart of the American experience, where it belongs. It reminds us that even those who have not forgotten the past are doomed to repeat it, too—a notion that is very much at odds with the American belief in reinvention and newness and personal autonomy, and that's a belief that we seem to cling to no matter how often American literature exposes it as myth.

Kyle Dargan

Bio: Associate professor; AU director of creative writing; author of three poetry collections

Selections: Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison and The Assistant by Bernard Malamud

For me, the most honest answer would be that it's a stalemate between Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man and Bernard Malamud's The Assistant. Both are stories from a different time. In Ellison's tale of a nameless narrator whose social "invisibility," rendered by race, makes him a screen for the ideological projections of others, the protagonist must forge not only an identity but a context in which that identity can be recognized. Malamud's story of an Italian stranger seeking refuge and reinvention in a Jewish grocer's store questions the nature of love and what it means to be Jewish, while anticipating our present age when ethnic intermingling is changing the cultural fabric of America.

Anita Sherman

Bio: Associate professor; author, Skepticism and Memory in Shakespeare and Donne

Selections: The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James; assorted poems and other works

In college, a friend (who's now my husband) gave me The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James, and it was a revelation. It captured for me all the oblique ways that people communicate without words—the way you meet another person's eyes and know what she's thinking (or so you imagine) or the inadvertent gestures you over-interpret in the desire for a meaningful connection.

In a college class, taught by [the late Harvard professor] Isabel MacCaffrey, I discovered English Renaissance poetry. I still know by heart Thomas Wyatt's poem, "They flee from me, that sometime did me seek/With naked foot stalking in my chamber." The beauty of Edmund Spenser's wedding poem to his wife, his "Epithalamion," amazed me with its harmonies and orchestration. These days I love what I teach—mostly Shakespeare—in part because it holds up so well after multiple re-readings. I'm always marveling over lines and phrases I've never noticed before. My all-time favorite poem is probably John Donne's "A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy's Day" because the loneliness of his grief pulls you in. Right now I'm reading Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle, admiring his brilliant way of novelizing the comedy of everyday life.

Alison Thomas

Bio: Professorial lecturer; AU MFA '06

Selection: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

I love this book because I find the prose stunning and lyrical. It's set in the 1930s, and its main characters—a child, a deaf man, an African-American doctor—are richly and lovingly rendered. I like how McCullers lets her characters speak for those who, at the time, were voiceless. As a writer, I admire her compassion for her characters, and as a reader, I feel moved by the characters' search for solace in this swath of the world McCullers paints them in—a realistic, sometimes gritty, portrait.