“Modern Classic” doesn’t actually mean anything specific. I would loosely define it as something written in the last 50 years that has the potential to be required reading in some university program or MFA course if it isn’t already. For this list, however, you can think of it as the type of book that will look impressive on your bookshelf and that you’ll actually want to read.
A SPORT AND A PASTIME
by James Salter
A Sport and a Pastime is the story of a Yale dropout having a fling with a French girl in provincial France, and is the best example of how sensual James Salter’s writing can be. Everything about this book is sexy. The setting, the prose, the hot young lovers—it’s all working. Plus, there’s this sense of melancholy that lingers over the affair that makes it even steamier. If you like cerebral romances that aren’t necessarily all that romantic, I’d follow this one up with Salter’s Light Years. It’s technically a novel about a married couple but it’s actually more of a chance for Salter to show off how good he is at making you wonder if you’ve ever actually been happy or in love. Light Years also inspired The National’s song of the same name. So if I can’t convince you to read James Salter, hopefully The National can.
by Jonathan Lethem
In Chronic City, Jonathan Lethem creates a caricature Manhattan that feels like you’re looking at the city and its inhabitants through a fun house mirror. Imagine a Roy Lichtenstein version of the city bigger, brighter, and bolder than its original self. New York isn’t the only aspect of Chronic City that is exaggerated. Each of his characters are composites of various types of people that any New Yorker sees on a daily basis: the ex-child actor, the hoarder recluse, the woman who looks like a drip of black coffee, etc. I am notoriously forgetful when it comes to remembering details about books, with Chronic City being a rare exception. I think about this book frequently and dare you not to do the same.
by Zadie Smith
I only recently read White Teeth after avoiding Zadie Smith completely because she felt too much like a writer I *should* be obsessed with. Well, that was dumb. While reading White Teeth, I had moments where I believed that I’d spend the next year of my life reading everything Zadie has ever written. That has yet to be the case, but I am convinced that if I had to choose only 10 writers to read for the rest of my life, she would easily make the cut. White Teeth, her debut novel that was published when Zadie was 25 (not fair), follows two WWII vets with a deep friendship that expands decades. That brief synopsis doesn’t nearly do the book justice.
It is her ability to simultaneously subvert and define multi-generational and multi-cultural expectations, plus her wizardry with words, that makes this a modern classic. Sometimes there are authors you *should* be obsessed with because they are just that damn good. Zadie, thank you for making me a less stubborn reader.