Start Here: A Reading Pathway to William Faulkner

As many of you know by now, I love William Faulkner. As only some of you know, I would love to organize a small Faulkner celebration in September/October. (Would you join us? Say yes!) So, in order to give you some idea of what to read for this event and because I've always wanted to write such a post about Faulkner, I’m entering Book Riot’s START HERE Write-In Giveaway. This means I will highlight a "reading pathway" for you: a sequence of 3-4 books that could get you started on Faulkner. ETA: I have added a link at the end of this to another entry from the same contest - a So You Wanna Read William Faulkner flowchart; it is made of awesome so make sure to check it out.

There is no easy answer to the question “Where should I start with William Faulkner?” That’s not because there is no good place to start, as some Faulknophobes would have you believe, but because there are as many answers as there are readers. Finding the right book to start you off would ideally involve figuring out your profile as a reader first. Do names like Woolf and Joyce bring a smile to your face? Then As I Lay Dying or The Sound and the Fury are the titles most likely to hook you. Southern Gothic is your genre of choice? A Rose for Emily or the frequently (and unjustly) sneered at Sanctuary could be your gateway drug to Faulkner. If you’d rather go for a strong narrative with a dash of good old Southwestern humor, try The Hamlet or Faulkner's last and utterly charming novel, The Reivers. If you’re a fan of Harper Lee, you’ll love Intruder in the Dust. But perhaps you’re after a grittier picture of the segregated South? Then give Light in August a try. (And if you want all this and more, you are a. wonderful, b. crazy and c. looking for Absalom, Absalom.)

But if none of these labels describes you, or if you just want to discover Faulkner as he is, not Faulkner as he’s most likely to appeal to you, what should you read? Well, gentle generic reader, here’s the reading pathway I’d suggest for you.

Start with Light in August

Among Faulkner’s novels, Light in August has a special place in that it is an undisputed masterpiece, but also quite readable. The narrative is not completely linear and there is some stream of consciousness sprinkled in there, but you should be able to follow the story with minimal effort. Think of it as training for the puzzle-solving activity Faulkner will demand of you later. In the meantime, get acquainted with Yoknapatawpha, the fictional Mississippi county in which Faulkner set most of his novels, and get a sense of his favorite themes. Almost everything Faulkner has to offer stylistically and thematically is present in this book: humor, gore, suspense, wonderful descriptions. Make a note of the parts you liked best. They're a pretty good indicator of which Faulkner novels you're likely to enjoy. For example, I loved Reverend Hightower’s reminiscences—long, yearning sentences that you read holding your breath. This is by far my favorite of Faulkner’s techniques, so I usually gravitate towards novels where it’s heavily used (like Absalom, Absalom).

Take a detour through The Unvanquished

Though not one of Faulkner’s masterpieces, The Unvanquished is an accessible book that can further familiarize you with his style, and, more importantly, it gives you a very powerful key to understanding Yoknapatawpha and its inhabitants: the Civil War mythology. Most of Faulkner’s characters are in some way shaped by this legacy. Quentin Compson is even described at one point as not a being, but a "barracks filled with stubborn back-looking ghosts.” Start by meeting the ghosts before you meet Quentin; you’ll understand him better. (That's also why I chose this book as your second stop over the superior As I Lay Dying.) The Unvanquished also introduces several Yoknapatawpha families. If any of them catches your eye, look up their books next. The Sartoris take center stage again in Flags in the Dust; the Snopes in The Hamlet trilogy; the McCaslins in Go Down, Moses. Faulkner’s world is deeply interconnected and half of the fun is getting to explore these ties.

Get thyself a character list and/or tackle The Sound and the Fury

We’ve finally reached it: one of the best novels ever written and the book Faulkner felt “tenderest toward.” My advice is to read this one twice. Don’t obsess over piecing it together the first time. Let the language flow over you; let the story come to you on its own terms. It most likely will, at least in its general lines. You can read Faulkner’s Appendix or the wikipedia entry afterwards and it will all fall into place. Revisit it then and savor it fully. Would it help if you were already used with this style, say from making an additional detour through the shorter As I Lay Dying? It might, but in all honesty the thing that can best prepare you for reading The Sound and the Fury is...reading The Sound and the Fury. But if investing enough in a book to read it twice is just not your style, get a character list from the start. It's not very difficult to figure out what happens, once you understand that multiple characters have the same name.

Absalom, Absalom!

For a long time, I’d tell people to start Faulkner with this book: sink or swim. It has a reputation for being dense, dark and challenging. It can be all of these things. It is also deeply rewarding and quintessentially Faulkner. If something in Faulkner touched you, if you were intrigued by Quentin Compson’s fate or fascinated by Faulkner’s troubled and contradictory South, if you liked the rhythm of his sentences even when you had trouble keeping up, read Absalom, Absalom. Or just read it anyway--it would be a shame to miss it. It's the high point on which to end our William Faulkner reading pathway and it will hopefully inspire you to read more. And if you want more reading suggestions, check out this amazing flowchart. Trust me, it will answer all your Faulkner needs.


  1. I want to read all of these. Right now. Thanks. (Must force myself to focus on The Razor's Edge first because I really do want to finish it!)

    1. You should read all of these right now :) And also share your thoughts on The Razor's Edge because I never read anything by that guy and I'm curious.

  2. Such an enthusiastic post! I'm re-reading 'As I Lay Dying' for the Classics Club challenge. I read it as a seventeen year old and loved it.

    You've persuaded me to add both 'The Sound and the Fury' and 'Absalom, Absalom' to my wishlist. It's definitely a case of too many books and too little time!

    1. Yay, I'm looking forward to your thoughts on both of them. I think I was seventeen as well when I first discovered Faulkner.

  3. If you like True Detective, try Faulkner