The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925, fiction). No one has ever written prose that precise, yet lyrical, and I can think of no other book that has managed to attain such a balance of the elegiac and the cynical. Also, structurally, it's flawless.
The Diary of Anne Frank, by Anne Frank (1947, non-fiction) is a book I read every year. It's amazing how well this young woman writes, how clearly she sees character, and how she maintains her human goodness and her dreams in a monstrous world. Despite Anne's tragic end, there is something hopeful in knowing that this little girl's quiet voice has reached more people than the voice of hate, and has long outlasted Hitler's projected "Thousand-Year Reich."
The Sportswriter (1986, fiction) and Independence Day (1995, fiction), both by Richard Ford. Two richly portrayed weekends, four years apart, in the life of the sweet, melancholy Frank Bascombe -- an honest and flawed man doing the best he can in a world which does the best it can. I think these books should be required reading for every middle-aged man in America as well as anyone who knows one, or ever lived with one. In short, everybody has something to learn from knowing Frank Bascombe. These are the Great American Novels of the so-called American Century.
KAREN G. ANDERSON
The Diary of Anne Frank, by Anne Frank (1949, non-fiction). Of all the accounts I have read of man's inhumanity to man, this struck me as the most compelling and memorable -- perhaps because the persecution is the backdrop of the story, rather than the central theme, and because the story was written by an adolescent rather than an adult.
Charlotte's Web, by E.B. White (1952, fiction). An acknowledged master of mid-century American writing, E.B. White produced small, polished masterpieces. This story of the farmyard friendship between a spider and a pig is my favorite book to read out loud.
In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote (1966, non-fiction). Reporting or fiction? With this riveting book about the gruesome murder of a wholesome Kansas family, Capote was one of the first to pose this question, then shrug it off. In Cold Blood marks the beginning of a still-controversial school of late 20th-century writing known as "new journalism."
Down and Out in Paris and London, by George Orwell (1961, fiction). The only book I've read four times (and I hope to read it at least four more times before I'm through). It's a hilarious but socially conscientious novel/memoir, containing the best description of poverty in our literature, with none of the sentimentality or piety of, say, the average Dickens novel.
The Quiet American, by Graham Greene (1956, fiction). The Vietnam War is long over, but guilt and moral ambivalence last forever. Greene is a great writer in a way that most post-modern literary snobs and commercial hacks can't understand. Something happens in his books, character matters as much as language. From the 1950s, Greene predicted what would happen to American foreign policy over the next 20 years, but the book is not in the least bit dated. This is news that stays news. Get outta here with your suburban ennui.
The Years, by Virginia Woolf (1937, fiction). It still strikes me as odd that while The Years was Woolf's most popular work during her lifetime, it's not the work she is most often remembered for. It's a cool drink and a lively waltz. I could just read it again and again and...
ROBERT V. REMINI
The Age of Jackson, by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. (1945, non-fiction). That book changed my life -- and for the better. I had intended to become a 20th-century urban (New York) historian. The Schlesinger book convinced me to change direction. Andrew Jackson took hold of my imagination and has yet to let go.
Death in the Afternoon (1932, fiction) and A Moveable Feast (1964, fiction), by Ernest Hemingway. Both books made me think about style and why I needed to improve my own. Death in the Afternoon also helped me understand the mystique of the Spanish at a time when I needed to know them a lot better than I did.
To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee (1960, fiction). This is one of the most lyrical and beautiful books I've ever read. What a joy to read, and oh how I'd love to write like that.
The Sunday of Life (La Dimanche de la Vie), by Raymond Queneau (English edition 1977, fiction). Translated into English by Barbara Wright, published by New Directions, this is my favorite novel by this great French poet, novelist and philosopher, the only French writer to have been a member of both the Academie Francaise and the Academie Pataphysique (founded by Alfred Jarry).
The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel, the Novel as History, by Norman Mailer (1968, non-fiction). An entire issue of Harper's Magazine was given over to Mailer for his seminal "I was there" account of the historic antiwar march on Washington, D.C., in 1967, which later became this book. No one captured the tumultuous events of the late 60s more brilliantly, or with greater insight, than Mailer. A groundbreaking work at the confluence of literature and journalism, this book helped to mobilize a generation of young Americans against the Vietnam War.
Underworld, by Don DeLillo (1997, fiction). Writing at the peak of his formidable powers -- on breathtaking display in the book's opening section -- DeLillo drills beneath the hype of the "American Century" to expose the undercurrents running through the United States in the last 50 years. An astonishing, mesmerizing epic of a novel, weighing in at 832 pages, it richly rewards attentive reading.
The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, by Allan M. Siegal and William G. Connolly (1999, non-fiction). Thoroughly revised and greatly expanded from the last edition (1976), this comprehensive manual, written with elegance, clarity and a subtle sense of humor by Siegal, an assistant managing editor of The New York Times, and Connolly, a Times senior editor, instantly became the authoritative usage guide upon publication in October 1999. Indispensable for any serious writer or editor, the book is also a pleasure to read.
From three categories -- fiction, non-fiction, children's: Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1866, fiction); A World Lit Only By Fire, by William Manchester (1992, non-fiction); Harold and the Purple Crayon, by Crockett Johnson (1955, fiction).
DAVID GEORGE GORDON
Jungle Peace, by William Beebe (1918, non-fiction). Written by the New York Zoological Society's first scientific director, this and Beebe's later works set the tone for subsequent first-person nature writings and enthralled a nation for the most part preoccupied with the aftermath of World War I. In the book's foreword, written by none other than Teddy Roosevelt (!), Beebe is praised for compiling "records of extraordinary scientific interest, in language which has all the charm of an essay of Robert Louis Stevenson... Whatever he touches he turns to gold of truth rightly interpreted and vividly set forth -- as witness his extraordinary account of the sleeping parlor of certain gorgeous butterflies." Don't we all wish we could get a U.S. president to say something sweet about our work?
"What's your favorite color? Your very favorite?" my 5-year-old would ask, and when I'd name two or three, he'd stop me, objecting, "No, no, which one is best?" And I would be at a loss, because I'm indecisive, because it seems such a betrayal to all the others, choosing just one.
Crash, by J.G. Ballard (1973, fiction). Forget David Cronenberg's dismal film adaptation. Ballard's Crash is howlingly funny: an intense and outrageous deconstruction of 20th-century car culture written in a flawless, deadpan, clinical style that leaves the reader laughing hysterically... and simultaneously disgusted at the ugly truth of it all. The hypnotic prose perfectly renders the author's relentless vision: an obsessive collision of anatomy and technology, narcissism and exuberant nihilism, and sex and media culture.
The Sheep Look Up, by John Brunner (1972, fiction). Set in an unspecified near-future, this novel frighteningly and all-too-accurately describes the environmental, urban and political landscape of the 1980s and 90s. We've known all along that we have been destroying ourselves and our planet, and that we have the resources to stop this madness, as this novel deftly demonstrates. Why don't we do something about it? This dense, fast-paced book is a chilling, unignorable call to action.
The Warrior Who Carried Life, by Geoff Ryman (1985, fiction). A girl's brutal life drives her to vengeance. She undergoes a ritual that transforms her into a physically powerful male warrior. This gender-bending tale of unlikely love and harsh beauty reinvents archetypal myths in a deeply evocative fashion. The prose is fascinatingly strange, and the tale stranger by far. Dense with fabulous ideas, and rich with difficult emotions, this is fantasy at its most challenging, intelligent and resonant.
Each of these books has influenced me as a writer in some way, or there's an emotional attachment:
Death in Silver, by Lester Dent (writing as Kenneth Robeson; 1968, fiction). This was one of the early Doc Savage novels that Dent pounded out on a monthly basis for more than 15 years, from the Depression to after the end of World War II. Dent's fantastic pulp yarns were propelled by his purple prose and quixotic turn of phrase. His characters were broadly drawn, yet there was a Dickensian quality to them too. And this guy was a master at moving a story along. Read his early stuff and you can see the influence of Dent's story structure and pacing on many a modern thriller.
My favorite books are the ones I finish and then immediately turn to the first page and start again! Both of the following works are superbly written, crammed with information and brimming with human drama:
I've concluded that my choices should be those books that most impressed me when I read them. My opinion might vary from one season to another, and I make no claim for other merit. I suspect my first choice will not be found on other lists. As will be seen, my choices all relate to the deeper exploration of human nature, something I try to do in my own writing:
The Rebellion of Yale Marrat, by Robert H. Rimmer (1964, fiction). Rimmer is quite a writer, and this is quite a story, apart from its theme, which is an argument for bigamy. He may have a case.
Lilith, by J.R. Salamanca (1961, fiction). The story of a man who seeks to rehabilitate a lovely young woman from her madness, but instead she draws him into her world. A phenomenal, savage portrayal, with much truth, beautifully written.
The Tin Drum, by Günter Grass (1959, fiction). Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999, but a book that had a profound effect on me when it was first published. I tried to explain why in my critical study of Grass, published in 1975. It's a searing indictment of war, seen through the eyes of the most bizarre and beguiling narrator.
My first favorite is actually the four novels that comprise Lawrence Durrell's The Alexandrian Quartet (1962, fiction). I was a young pup when I saw a blurb about "the sensuality" of Justine. Yes, Alexandria did turn out to be "the wine-press of love," but for the first time I watched a writer sailing -- no, soaring in ecstasy -- on wings of words. After Justine came Balthazar and Clea and Mountolive. I treasured the Quartet. But only when I came to teach Modern Fiction did I learn that Justine in her four incarnations was actually Cleopatra. Then I was really impressed.
Somewhere in my travels I learned that writers should treat their characters in each scene as hungry tigers stalking each other. But I knew what hungry tigers were. I had read Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon (1930, fiction). Desperate people do tell the best stories. Each one in Falcon had his or her own agenda. Later, I puzzled over Hammett's Flitcraft Parable, which is the only time he allows the nonstop action to even slow. The only other scene that is comparable in my mind is the gravedigger's scene in Hamlet. I wonder...
An American Tragedy, by Theodore Dreiser (1948, fiction). Why? Because I love social realism. This guy was the Charles Dickens of our century.
All of Us: The Collected Poems (1998) and also Where I'm Calling From: Selected Stories (1988, fiction), by Raymond Carver; The Collected Poems 1931-1987, by Czeslaw Milosz (1997); all of poet Paul Celan; all of poet Anna Akhmatova; also all of W.B. Yeats.
STUART M. KAMINSKY
My favorite books of the century are many, many, but here are a few that I would put very high on my list: U.S.A. (comprising The 42nd Parallel, 1919, and The Big Money), by John Dos Passos (1936, fiction); The Sot-Weed Factor, by John Barth (1960, fiction); American Appetites, by Joyce Carol Oates (1989, fiction); A Dark Adapted Eye, by Barbara Vine (aka Ruth Rendell; 1986, fiction). Plus any Jules Maigret novel by Georges Simenon.
The Little Prince (Le Petit Prince), by Antoine de Saint-Exupery (1943, fiction). A delight for children, and better appreciated by adults.
The Peanuts Treasury, by Charles M. Schulz (1968, fiction). The entire range of human
1984, by George Orwell (1949, fiction). Orwell saw exactly where we were headed, and he gave us the worst-case scenario. Inexplicably, people still choose to ignore the warning signs.
The Bat-Poet, by Randall Jarrell (1964, fiction). It's about a little bat who would be a poet, and who discovers in the end that poetry is about finding authentic "voice." It's one of those books that is called a children's book, but as you know, I think the best of those are multi-layered. I read this book when I was a beginning, hopeful poet. Best line: "The trouble isn't writing poems, the trouble's finding someone who will listen." Yes, I thought at the time, if only... It's wonderful to have found someone who will listen, but like the bat, I think the quest is always for authentic voice.
The Roaring Girl, by Greg Hollingshead (1997, fiction), because the short stories are at once brilliant and funny, to boot.