Let's face a sad truth: To be a book lover in the 21st century is a hard task. In the world of the knowledge economy and of constantly being plugged in to a steady stream of small amounts of information, one has to engage in some pretty serious denial to not worry about the opportunity cost of reading a long book.
Ideally, we would read everything worth reading and expand our thinking and feeling in every way all the time. We do not live ideally. Because of this, though not with explicit discussion of it, a shorthand has been created to guide us. The Web is full of lists to guide us to what has come to be "the canon" of great English literature. If you follow all of those links, you will find a shocking amount of overlap between them.
Needless to say, so many things have been written by so many people over the course of human history that we do need a sort of shorthand to become well-read. This post will not deign to try to promote any superlatives, nor will it try to right any of what must be infinite wrongs by bringing to light authors who have not bern noticed for their genius. It will simply show some works, by well known and well received authors, which you ought to read instead of their more canonical work. Also, if you have any suggestions, put them in the comments below.
In other words, Don't read that, read these!
1) Don't read Slaughterhouse 5. Read The Sirens of Titan!
Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s The Sirens of Titan shows off the genius of Vonnegut's morality and imagination far more than Slaughterhouse 5 does. While Slaughterhouse 5 has the force of discussing the Dresden fire bombings, which Vonnegut was present for, Sirens holds a whole made up religion (a trademark Vonnegut move), takes place on many planets, features a large scale invasion of Earth from Mars, and still manages to be one of the most humane novels ever, featuring beautifully delivered wisdom and advice about friendship, daily life, and how we should think about god.
2) Don't read The English Patient or The Cat's Table. Read Coming Through Slaughter!
Michael Ondaatje's Coming Through Slaughter takes the few details we have about turn of the century New Orleans Jazz musician Buddy Bolden and turns them into a half-poetic, half-prosaic romp through years of his life. Though it is not even 150 pages long, it carries more emotional force in it than the entirety of Ondaatje's hit books, The English Patient and The Cat's Table.
3) Don't read 1984 or Animal Farm. Read Burmese Days!
Burmese days tells a story set in British occupied Burma. The beauty of the prose and depth of the characters gives it literary power beyond even 1984.
Orwell is as much a moral thinker as he is a writer, which is saying quite a bit. That is why the entirety of 1984 functions as a de facto thought experiment in any conversation about political philosophy which it is relevant to. However, his moral thought extends beyond just opposition to fascism and communism. In Burmese Days we see an example of this, as he masterfully discusses colonialism.
4) Don't read The Trial. Read In the Penal Colony!
Franz Kafka's short story In the Penal Colony combines all of the elements which make Kafka so terrifying and so funny: an outsider's perspective, a lack of explanation, bureaucracy, megalomania and twisted morality. It also showcases his inventive mind, in the form a machine of torture, which is perhaps the most gruesome thing in all of literature.
The shortness of the story and the inventiveness of the concept pack this tale with more blurred terror and humor than even Kafka's masterpiece novel, The Trial.
5) Don't read The Great Gatsby. Read May Day!
Fitzgerald's May Day is a novella in the collection, Tales of the Jazz Age. More so even than The Great Gatsby, it showcases the age which Fitzgerald so aptly named, and discusses the themes of romantic longing, wealth and lost youth which captivated Fitzgerald, and, through him, the world.
Bonus: Don't Listen to Leonard Cohen. Read Him!
Leonard Cohen is known for his nearly half-century long career in music. His style(s) of dark, poetic imagery sung by a powerful, gravelly voice has earned him fame and repute over the course of 12 studio albums and countless concerts. He is an inductee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where he was described by none other than Lou Reed as part of the "highest and most influential echelon of songwriters".
What is less known about him is that he is perhaps a better novelist even than he is a musician. He has written two novels, The Favorite Game and Beautiful Losers, each excellent.