Here is a list of the most dog-eared books on my shelf. I have included books that astonished me, books that inspired me, and books that taught me how to write.
Dubliners by James Joyce: Still gives me chills.
The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot: Most writing attempts too little—not this.
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess: Great movie, great book.
First Love and Other Sorrows and Stories in an Almost Classical Mode by Harold Brodkey: Depth of moment; language with meaning and surface.
Dracula by Bram Stoker: One of the first books of my adult life to knock my socks off.
Slaughterhouse Five and Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut: Ditto.
Adam Bede by George Eliot: Deep characters with interesting psychologies.
The Russians: Crime and Punishment, Anna Karenina, Fathers and Sons.
The Brontës: Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights.
A Sport and a Pastime and Solo Faces by James Salter: Polished jewels—extraordinary pacing, beautiful writing.
Hunger by Knut Hamsun: Head-spinning transitions between despair and mania.
Knulp by Hermann Hesse: Simple, elegant, meaning of a life.
First Love and Other Shorts and Texts for Nothing by Samuel Beckett: Spare, no plot, makes you think—try it.
Amateurs by Donald Barthelme: Brilliant stories with bizarre logic and strange juxtapositions.
Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather: Rich language, astonishing imagination.
The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann: For a long time my favorite book.
The Kiss of the Spider Woman by Manuel Puig: All dialogue and all astonishing.
Life is Elsewhere by Milan Kundera: The book completely lives up to the title.
The Sleepwalkers by Hermann Broch: Disintegration of values after WWII, but applies today.
The Death of Virgil by Hermann Broch: Open to any page and read for language.
The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson: Incredible 1950’s era thriller about a sociopath; cult classic.
The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James: Read for dialogue.
Going After Cacciato and In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien: Haunting; for readers and writers.
Despair by Vladimir Nabokov: Claustrophobic exploration of point of view and how perceptions are all we have.
The Mountain Lion and Collected Stories by Jean Stafford: Zingy language and characters that pop off the page.
The Watcher and Other Stories by Italo Calvino: Wonderful sentences; drama in the every day.
Lost in the Funhouse by John Barth: Sheer originality.
The Virgin Suicides by Geoffrey Eugenides: Nobody understands anybody else.
The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene: Powerful story about missionary in Mexico; the best Greene.
The Trial by Franz Kafka: Arbitrariness of law; man’s darkness in the face of life.
A Distant Episode by Paul Bowles: Violent, shocking, great.
Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee: Ditto.
The Victim by Saul Bellow: Fabulous characterization, claustrophobic paranoia.
The Butcher Boy by Patrick McCabe: Schizophrenic boy; amazing shifts of mood.
All the Pretty Horses and The Road by Cormac McCarthy: Violent and beautiful search for connection to the land (Horses) and people (Road).
The Queen of the Tambourine by Jane Gardam: Affecting portrayal of English woman through letters from meddlesome neighbor; quirky, funny, bleak.
An Experiment in Love by Hilary Mantel: Complex structure, brilliant language.
Corregidora by Gayl Jones: Powerful, brutal story of the legacy of slavery.
Lives of a Cell by Lewis Thomas: Eye-opening essays on a macroscopic view of cell biology.
Rebellion by Joseph Roth: Disconnected quirkiness that stems from repressive regimes.
Waiting by Ha Jin: Inherent goodness of characters juxtaposed to absurdity of man-made rules; psychological damage done by Cultural Revolution.
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe: Loss of the old ways in Nigeria; very affecting.
Stones for Ibarra by Harriet Doerr: Americans in Mexico; reminiscent of The Power and the Glory.
Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice: Sensual, almost purple comment on nature of life and mortality.
The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon: Spectacular writing, likeable characters.
White Noise by Don DeLillo: Language and dialogue and absurdity, but also humanity and warmth.
In the New World: Growing up with America from the Sixties to the Eighties by Lawrence Wright: Memoir about growing up in Dallas, rings bell after bell.
Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller: Wonderful and funny memoir of African childhood.
The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga: Seamy underside of India; terrific character development.
The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep and Never Had To by D.C. Pierson: Ingenious coming of age story about social outcast.
The Confessions of Edward Day by Valerie Martin: Read for characterization and suspense.
In a Free State by V.S. Naipaul: My first Naipaul—what took me so long?
The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton: A strange and compelling novel of performers and voyeurs.
David Foster Wallace: Start with the essays, then try a novel—that’s what I’m doing.
Housekeeping and Gilead by Marilynne Robinson: Gorgeous language and affecting meditation on life.
Remainder by Tom McCarthy: Brain damage and no unnecessary explanations.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and Perfect by Rachel Joyce: The ordinary is extraordinary in Joyce’s hands.
The First Man by Albert Camus: The key to everything else Camus wrote.
Nausea by Jean Paul Sartre: Read for philosophy and language.
Zone One by Colson Whitehead: Astonishing powers of observation, no plot.
The Stockholm Octavo by Karen Engelmann: A brilliant construction as much as an intriguing read.
Smilla’s Sense of Snow and The Elephant Keeper’s Children by Peter Høeg: Two sides of this writer’s amazing brain.
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes: Very subtle mystery—stay with it.
The Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle: War between gringo haves and Mexican have-nots.
Tenth of December by George Saunders: Laugh out loud; more imagination in one book than in a shelf of more usual fare.
The Appointment by Herta Müller: Late discovery for me; no wonder she won a Nobel Prize.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid: Fascinating structure and POV.
Fallen Land by Patrick Flanery: Literary thriller with drop dead gorgeous writing; nails the American nightmare.
Agaat by Marlene Van Niekerk: Long, complex; a giant of a writer.
The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut: Undercurrent of horror; reminiscent of Graham Greene.
The Blue Fox and The Whispering Muse by Sjón: Lyrical gems.
My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard: Big themes approached through minute detail—stunning.
Dirt by David Vann: Vann creates an entire psychological world, then shocks the hell out of you.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain: Astonishing language and pace—and funny!
Stoner by John Williams: Stoner carries on—don’t read if you are already depressed.
Woodcutters by Thomas Bernhard: One candidate for best novel of the 20th century.
The Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St. Aubyn: There are 5 of these, thank god, all laugh-out-loud funny and shockingly sad.
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris: Dentist confronts identity theft, almost finds meaning—funny, thoughtful, startling sentences.
The Dog by Joseph O’Neill: Lawyer confronts absurdity and globalization; read for the sentences alone.
T.C. Boyle: I have read The Tortilla Curtain and East is East, but I am guessing they are all pure manic genius.
Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson: Gorgeous; think Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy.
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders: the death of young Willie Lincoln inspires a moving and unbelievably creative story of living, loving, and letting go.
Night of Fire by Colin Thubron: The mysteriously interconnected lives of the tenants of an apartment building flash before their eyes. Thubron searches for meaning and damned if he doesn’t find it.