So let's begin at the beginning with the most famous book of all and work our way down. The links are to pages on this site.
1. The Grapes of Wrath (1939) by John Steinbeck. The story of the American Dream gone sour and the quest for a better life in California still resonates today. The book’s long but engrossing. You probably need to give it a shot.
2. Of Mice and Men (1937) by John Steinbeck. This tale of male comradeship and female seductiveness has long been a favorite of English teachers, probably because it’s crisply written and short (fewer than 30,000 words). It’s also grim and unsettling. The book will have an impact if you’re in the right mood.
3. East of Eden (1952) by John Steinbeck. Here Steinbeck’s favorite themes blossom into full-fledged misogyny. Add to that its garbled narrative scheme and its great length (600 pages) and you have a famous book worth skipping.
4. Cannery Row (1945) by John Steinbeck. More Steinbeck. More guys who can’t cope with women. The novel is fun enough but not earth-shaking. You can safely put it on your optional list.
5. Tortilla Flat (1935) by John Steinbeck. This is fun too, although the ethnic stereotyping might make some readers uncomfortable. It’s another optional read.
6. The Last Tycoon (1941) by F. Scott Fitzgerald. What we have here is half of a first draft that Fitzgerald never completed. The shaky narrative structure and mushy story line show that he had a long way to go before the novel was ready for publication. You can enter this on your “must ignore” list.
7. The Maltese Falcon (1930) by Dashiell Hammett. If you have a yen for a hard-edged detective story, you won’t do better than this ground-breaking 1930 novel -- unless you’ve seen the Humphrey Bogart film adaptation recently enough to remember everything that happens.
8. The Human Comedy (1943) by William Saroyan. This novel, set on the home front during World War II, manages to depict the common decency of ordinary people without resorting to manipulative sentimentality. It shouldn’t be missed.
9. The Wayward Bus (1947) by John Steinbeck. This time Steinbeck abandons male comradeship and biblical allusions and goes for straight-ahead realism. It’s not an essential read, but it is a good one.
10. The Loved One (1948) by Evelyn Waugh. This satirical novel moves from funny to nasty as Waugh tries to figure out what to do with the characters. The book’s short though, so you might want to give it a try even if you’re not usually attracted to black comedy. Or, then again, you might not.
So here’s my take on the top ten: The Grapes of Wrath and The Human Comedy are must-reads. If you want to try more Steinbeck, you can safely start anywhere except the long and clumsy East of Eden. The Last Tycoon should be skipped too, if only out of respect for Fitzgerald. Finally, The Maltese Falcon is a good bet for fans of detective stories, and The Loved One is pretty much a matter of taste.