On now to the second ten. Compared with the first, the list offers more diversity -- in authors, styles and settings. And short story collections show up for the first time.
11. McTeague (1899) by Frank Norris. This novel is notable as an early and forceful example of American naturalism. Its protagonist is memorable (if not exactly pleasant) and its descriptions are vivid. Moreover, Norris employs an easily accessible style. You shouldn’t miss this one.
12. Sweet Thursday (1954) by John Steinbeck. Still more Steinbeck. Here romance flourishes as he concocts a sequel to Cannery Row that’s missing his usual aversion to women. It’s a nice read but not an essential one.
13. Martin Eden (1909) by Jack London. This semi-autobiographical tale of a working-class guy trying to get ahead by becoming a writer is useful in understanding London and may be inspirational to struggling artists of all kinds. But the writing begins to drag after a while, so most readers can safely choose to pass.
14. The Long Valley (1938) by John Steinbeck. How many books did this dude write, you may ask. This one is different because it’s a collection of short stories. “The Red Pony,” which has been published separately, is the longest and most memorable. Short story fanciers might want to put the book at the top of their optional lists.
15. The Octopus (1901) by Frank Norris. This long novel has value as a fictional supplement to accounts of the struggle between California farmers and the Southern Pacific Railroad. Its literary shortcomings, however, especially the sluggish prose, make it less than a good read for those not historically minded.
16. The Big Sleep (1939) by Raymond Chandler. On the other hand, Chandler’s prose, with its offbeat descriptions and sardonic comments, is what sets this book above not only other detective novels but nearly all novels of any sort. Even if you don’t like mystery stories, you should give it a try.
17. The Dharma Bums (1958) by Jack Kerouac. This short novel is a bit too idiosyncratic to make it a must-read, but it’s a great starting point for anyone interested in the San Francisco beat scene of the 1950s.
18. My Name Is Aram (1940) by William Saroyan. Saroyan was as much a short-story writer as a novelist, and this book of stories, with its nostalgic accounts of boyhood in the San Joaquin Valley, is his greatest achievement in short fiction. If you’re looking for a follow-up to The Human Comedy, this is it.
19. Oil! (1927) by Upton Sinclair. This book is known less for its literary achievement than its wide-ranging look at an important subject. If you’re interested in the development of California’s oil industry, you’ll want to read it. If you’re not, you’re likely to be happier with something else.
20. The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) by James M. Cain. Noir fiction is an important component of California literature, and this book extends noir beyond crooks and detectives to people not routinely involved in crime. The action moves swiftly and ends in fewer than 40,000 words. You pretty much have to give it a try.
To sum up: McTeague, The Big Sleep and The Postman Always Rings Twice deserve to rank as must-reads. The Octopus, Oil! and Martin Eden are of historical interest. The two Steinbeck books show sides of the author not seen in the top-ten entries. Saroyan fans will appreciate My Name Is Aram. And nothing on the list is actually bad.