Herman Melville, Moby Dick

The poet and critic John Ciardi once told me and a group of my students that he learned more in two weeks on the Pequod (Melville’s ship that carried the monomaniacal Captain Ahab on his journey to annihilate the great White Whale) than he learned in his years in the nose of a B-52 bomber in World War II. While this novel has many competitors for a spot on my list of twelve—I think of the Henry James’ The Ambassadors, Jane Austen’s Pride And Prejudice, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, even F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby—this massive, brooding reflection on faith, doubt, meaning, darkness, achievement, and obsessive ego stands as one of the classics of American literature.