For instance, although I am not much of a Faulkner fan, I would consider The Sound and the Fury or Absalom, Absalom! as his masterpieces. To someone who hasn't read him, though, I would suggest As I Lay Dying. Similarly, it seems to me that it would be preferable to read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man prior to plunging in to Ulysses (much less Finnegans Wake). It isn't so much the difficulty. It's rather that some novelists teach you how to read their work. I would submit, therefore, that although I believe Gravity's Rainbow to be Pynchon's masterpiece, I would start with V. (Many people suggest starting with The Crying of Lot 49, which I don't personally care much for. I think they like it because it's really short.)
I guess if you plan to read only one book by someone, it had better be the "masterpiece." But I think that with many authors the most important novel can be better appreciated when considered in light of the author's oeuvre.
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