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Can't-Put-'Em-Down Classics

Books from the canon can be just as engaging as best sellers—and a good bit more enlightening. Authors, critics, and other book lovers recommend their favorite titles that aren't a slog to get through.

Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham
Maugham tells the story of a naive young man who comes of age in Britain before World War I and falls disastrously in love with a waitress. Its title can scare readers off, but it's one of the funniest books I've ever read. —Alan Walker, of Penguin Group, who's reading a classic book for every letter of the alphabet and blogging about it on penguinclassics.com

Middlemarch by George Eliot
This book has two of my favorite qualities in a novel: It's beautifully written and feverishly gossipy. The themes—love, marriage, idealism, fulfillment, and cliquishness—are terribly accessible, and the characters suck you right into the 19th-century British backwater where it's set. —Asali Solomon, author of Get Down: Stories and visiting assistant professor of English at Trinity College, Hartford, Conn.

The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal
The historical sweep and intimate drama of this classic pull you in, and Richard Howard's English translation is vital and often quite funny. The adventures—and misadventures—of the main character, Fabrizio del Dongo, play out against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars. —Elizabeth D. Samet, author of Soldier's Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point, which won the 2007 Los Angeles Times award for Current Interest

The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton
This one is sharp and witty, with a great story and brilliant psychological insight into what it means to be a woman in a consumer culture—which is something that hasn't changed all that much since Wharton's day. —Susan Wise Bauer, author of The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had

The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini by Benvenuto Cellini
A startling work of self-justification and score settling, this autobiography has all the action and romance you'd find in a gripping historical novel. Renaissance artist, friend of Michelangelo, favorite of popes, and rival to cardinals, Cellini was also a street fighter, a philanderer, an egoist, and quite possibly a murderer. —Christopher Beha, author of the forthcoming The Whole Five Feet (Grove/Atlantic), about a year spent reading the Harvard Classics

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
This is a big sweeping novel about a lot of very important things, like social class, politics, and agriculture. But it's also a great, compelling romance. Just don't read it on a train. You'll have to read it to find out why. —Sara Nelson, editor in chief of Publishers Weekly

 
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