The Source of Self-Regard, Toni Morrison

It may be premature to deem a newish release a classic, but Toni Morrison's work reflects so much in the canon of American literature—the musical, observant prose folded into Beloved and The Bluest Eye set the standard for fiction in the late 20th century. Morrison's latest book is not a memoir so much as an ode to the writing process: It's a collection of essays and lectures on the artistic life, with nods to James Baldwin, Romare Bearden and Martin Luther King Jr.

Jaws, Peter Benchley 

So the shark is a metaphor, allegedly. Just a year before Steven Spielberg adapted it into a blockbuster, and a decade-plus before the initiation of Shark Week as an American pastime, Peter Benchley published his first novel, about a seaside resort terrorized by a great white shark with a can-do attitude, and being kept under the thumb of the marital unit. Or capitalism. There are some unfortunate scenes that have not aged well, but the book still works as unpretentious literary Splenda for summer reading.

Dandelion Wine, Ray Bradbury 

For the first 14 years of his life, Ray Bradbury lived in Waukegan, Ill., a midsized town just below the Wisconsin border. That is where we place Dandelion Wine, one of Bradbury's novels that is so clearly his darling, and not just for the direct comparisons between the young protagonist's life and his own. The book is intensely nostalgic for youth and summer, thick with imagery of Midwestern boyhood. "Hold summer in your hand, pour summer in a glass," he writes. "Change the season in your veins by raising glass to lip and tilting summer in."

Run, River, Joan Didion

Some years before the publication of Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album, essayist Joan Didion published Run, River, a portrait of a bleak and uninspiring marriage that collapses in on itself after a sudden murder. The novel is set in Didion's hometown of Sacramento, and it shows—there is a confidence in the way she writes of the Western pace of life that props up the difficult story and makes it infinitely more readable.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson ended her career with We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and despite its obvious merits, the novel never quite reached the heights of Jackson's cult-favorite short story "The Lottery." The two female leads are Jackson's own personal sun and moon, sisters kept on a remote estate with death a permanent stain on their past and future. Without gimmick, monster or ghost, the novel straddles the line between horror and psychological fiction, reworking the concept of American gothic for years to come.