Erich Auerbach isknown for getting sacked when the Nazis came to power; he's known for escaping the Third Reich and banding together with a bunch of other German scholars in Istanbul; but mostly he's known for writing Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, a brilliant doorstopper of a book on realism in the Western canon—from Homer to Virginia Woolf.
Mimesis is one of those books you should buy before you start college, because you know you're going to need it eventually, anyway. It's just that big of a deal.
(Auerbach wrote most of it from memory, by the way, because when he moved to Turkey, he had to leave his library behind in Germany. He apologizes for any oversights, so it's hard to get really mad at him.)
How have literary representations of reality and everyday life changed from Ancient Athens through Modernist London? That's the question answered by Mimesis. Auerbach offered close readings to illuminate worlds as wide-ranging as Cervantes's Renaissance Spain, Flaubert's 19th-century France, and Dante's medieval Italy. (Yeah, yeah: Italy wasn't a country yet, but that's a geography lesson, so don't worry about it.)
How many books riff on Odysseus's scar (you know—that nasty one on his thigh) to offer up an elaborate discussion of syntax, rhetoric, narrative… you get the point. Mimesis runs to about 550 pages, and every single page is packed with details about people's changing perceptions of the world over the course of thousands of years. If you ever have to write a paper about Cervantes, Dante, or Homer, Mimesis is mandatory reading.
Auerbach wrote other books, but Mimesis kind of leaves them all in the dust. Hey, it leaves most books in the dust.