DENNIS LEHANE
Author of
Prayers for Rain and Gone, Baby, Gone

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 Wanderers, by Richard Price (1974, fiction). This is the book that made me want to be a writer. It was the first time I'd ever read characters who seemed like the people I knew in my neighborhood. The fact that Price was 24 when he wrote it is mind boggling.

One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel García Márquez (1967, fiction). The kind of novel that does so much with the form that it makes you rethink every preconception you ever had about fiction. Plus, it's funny, thrilling, lusty and fearless in the risks it takes. Every page is a feast of language, and when I think of García Márquez in the process of writing this, I envision a man absolutely aflame with his own genius.

 

SPARKLE HAYTER
Author of The Last Manly Man and Revenge of the Cootie Girls

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."

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee (1960, fiction). It was the first "grownup" book I read, and I read it again every year too. Scout Finch probably did as much for the civil-rights movement in America as Uncle Tom's Cabin, in the way she portrays what makes us all human. This book works on so many levels at once. It's moving, funny, provocative, vivid. It's a book about racism and all our other prejudices; about having character, integrity, compassion, the courage of your convictions. Even the cruel, beaten-down Bob Ewells is treated with understanding and compassion in this book. It also speaks volumes about what it was like to grow up as a girl in a community where "the bible in one man's hand is worse than a whiskey bottle in another man's hand." It is a great story well told. My college friend Kathleen said she felt like she was "living in that book" while she was reading it, and I think that about sums it up.

Tropic of Cancer, by Henry Miller (1934, fiction). Miller strips away all the pretension, hypocrisy and shame of the modern, industrialized human being, to show what it is like to be truly real, sexual, human.

All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque (1928, fiction) and The Good Soldier: Schweik (1930, fiction), by Jaroslav Hasek. Two books about the First World War, seen through the eyes of the soldiers. All Quiet is such a moving account of tender young men forced to go kill and be killed because of the bad behavior of evil, powerful people. Scwheik is a comedy about war, and I love the way it shows how you can detach from horror and see the absurdity, humor and joy that exist even in terrible times.

Pippi Longstocking, by Astrid Lindgren (1950, fiction). Everywhere you go, you meet women (and sometimes men) who read and loved these books. Pippi is the ultimate, anarchic, nonconformist, good spirit.

 

TOM BODETT
Humorist, author of Williwaw! and The Free Fall of Webster Cummings

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.

Sometimes A Great Notion, by Ken Kesey (1964, fiction). I think this under-appreciated masterpiece is the requiem for the American working class. We will never be that innocent, or determined, again.

That's my two or three cents' worth.

 

KAREN G. ANDERSON
Contributing editor of January Magazine

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."

 

GARY KRIST
Author of Chaos Theory and Bad Chemistry

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.

Pale Fire, by Vladimir Nabokov (1962, fiction). Nabokov had it right, never letting the serious matter of creating serious literature get in the way of his fun. You can feel the sheer joy of artistic creation in every page and footnote.

Green Eggs and Ham, by Dr. Seuss (1960, fiction). One of the first, and still one of the best, books I've ever read. A paean to the importance of an open mind. (Though my daughter prefers Horton Hears a Who -- everybody's a critic these days...)

 

PETER BLAUNER
Author of Man of the Hour and Slow Motion Riot

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 Lonely Crusade, by Chester Himes (1947, fiction). Himes was prickly, acidic and brilliant, and went out of his way to make as many friends into enemies as possible. In this flawed, abrasive book, he takes on blacks, Jews, Christians, liberals, conservatives and anybody else who floats into his consciousness. He spares no one, and more than 50 years later, his writing burns through the page. After the book was roundly trashed by sensitive critics, he said the one thing that no one would ever forgive you for was if you were really, truly fair. A great credo for honest writing.

Last Exit to Brooklyn, by Hubert Selby Jr. (1978, fiction). The characters shocked me when I was a kid and now they just seem like neighbors. But oh, the humanity.

An American Tragedy, by Theodore Dreiser (1948, fiction). No gorgeous lacquered prose or ornate self-conscious narrative strategies. Just the crushing density of life and the epic American struggle on the page.

Jesus' Son, by Denis Johnson (1992, fiction). Writing so fine you could cut your hands on the words.

 

LINDA RICHARDS
Editor, January Magazine

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...

1984, by George Orwell (1949, fiction). No book has been referred to as often in the latter part of the 20th century. Written when the world was far more innocent, we continue to look over our shoulders for the signs that Orwell forecast so long ago.

The Stone Angel, by Margaret Laurence (1964, fiction). There is little of light or joy in Laurence's third novel, but much about humanity and the choices we make while passing through our lives. An important work that seems to receive more attention as time passes.

Captains and the Kings, by Taylor Caldwell (1972, fiction). A diet too high in Caldwell would give one a dark and bitter outlook on the world. This novel, however, is a wonderful balance: epic drama, political intrigue, a smattering of romance and a bunch of fairly evil people.

Centennial, by James Michener (1976, fiction). This was the first Michener I ever cracked. It was a mind-blowing experience for a 16-year-old. That the world could be so vast and history so well ordered had never occurred to me.

A Man in Full, by Tom Wolfe (1998, fiction). I honestly believe that, in 50 years, this is the book we'll refer to when looking for a description of American manhood at the end of the 20th century. Whether or not that portrait is a flattering one is up to the individual reader.

 

ROBERT V. REMINI
Professor emeritus of history at the University of Illinois at Chicago and National Book Award-winning author of a three-volume biography of Andrew Jackson

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.

 

ANDREI CODRESCU
Author of
Messiah and The Blood Countess

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).

Macunaima, by Mario de Andrade (English edition 1984, fiction). This is the original magical realist novel by a great Brazilian poet. Amazonian gods invade modern Rio de Janeiro and create a mess recognizable only by practitioners on the frontiers of cyberpunk and shamanism.

Visul, by Mircea Cartarescu (1989, fiction). Translated as Le Reve in French, this book, written originally in Romanian by a great poet, is still awaiting translation into English. It is a powerful novel about the dream life of a world the West only has glimpses of.

 

CHARLES SMYTH
Contributing editor of January Magazine

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.

 

RIDLEY PEARSON
Author of
The First Victim and The Pied Piper

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
Author of The Eat-a-Bug Cookbook and The Compleat Cockroach

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?

On the Track of Unknown Animals, by Bernard Heuvelmans (English edition 1958, non-fiction). This comprehensive volume made the word "cryptozoology" -- the X-Files of natural history -- a household world, at least among scientists. I first read this book in the 1970s and was blown away. Where else can you read well-documented tales about the Abominable snowman, the Queensland marsupial tiger, the Patagonian giant sloth and Kongamato, the last flying dragon, plus a nifty introduction by Gerald Durrell, all in one volume? Heuvelmans later founded the International Society of Cryptozoology. If you don't already get their irregular newsletter, I highly encourage you to subscribe.

 

MERILYN SIMONDS
Author of The Lion in the Room Next Door and The Convict Lover

"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.

With books, too, as with colors. Just one -- or even two or three -- from the myriad, how can I possibly choose? So much depends on context.

But the first, I can name that. The first book that made me shiver, that took me so thoroughly out of myself, so deep into myself that I returned to real life as from a long journey, or a dangerous fever.

I was 12. I'd found the book in the ship's library and settled in a deck chair out of the way of the huge, spider-dripping clusters of bananas that, during our stop in Ecuador, the crew had hung within snacking-reach of the passengers. I read it as we glided past the unseen coast of Colombia, out of the Pacific and into the Panama Canal, sailing ocean to ocean without once setting foot on land, men having moved mountains so we didn't have to leave the ship.

The book? A Night to Remember, by Walter Lord (1955, non-fiction). This story about the sinking of the Titanic, an event the movie made so mundane, seeded in me the power of true stories, of stories erupting at those moments when the present catches up to its past. Looking back, that book holds a fitting metaphor for the century: the mindless worship of the New (World), the devastating consequence of class, the persistent folly of hubris, the insufficiency of technology in the face of nature, the survival, against all odds, of individual humans.

 

CLAUDE LALUMIÈRE
Founder/former owner of Montreal's Nebula Bookshop and a contributing editor of January Magazine

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.

 

GARY PHILLIPS
Author of
The Jook and Bad Night Is Falling

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.

The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett (1930, fiction). What can I say? To me this novel -- the terse, tough writing, the intricate plotting and the colorful characters -- is the template for many a private eye story that has since come along. Sam Spade is a dimensional, complex character who is many things at many times, and interestingly, much like Lew Archer, he is unknown to his own psyche. Yet Spade is unerringly capable of discerning the motivations of others. He exists because people are greedy and manipulative, and his delight is in ferreting the deeds of such people out.

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, by Jules Verne (1873, fiction). I picked this book because when I was in grade school, we were taught the Dewey decimal system. I distinctly remember that this, along with a Dr. Doolittle story, was one of the first books I looked up by myself on the shelves of our library at the 61st Street School. Subsequently, I became a Jules Verne fan. I became enthralled with the way he interwove his visionary science fiction tales grounded in the vagaries of human foibles. He taught me that no matter how far we progressed technologically, we were only as enlightened as our maturity permitted.

Native Son, by Richard Wright (1940, fiction). I have a first edition of this book that belonged to my mother. I read the book in college, still in my teens. I'd heard so much about the novel and what it said about racism and black life in America, that I was compelled to read it and find out for myself. The book does live up to the hype. And in retrospect, Wright taught me much as a writer about the importance of exploring the interior landscape of your characters as they react to, and are affected by, external conditions.

 

LINDA DONELSON
Author of
Out of Isak Dinesen in Africa: Karen Blixen's Untold Story

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:

The White Nile, by Alan Moorehead (1960, non-fiction), a history of Nile exploration in the 19th century.

The Creators, by Daniel J. Boorstin (1992, non-fiction), a biographical history of civilization's best thinkers.

 

PIERS ANTHONY
Author of Xone of Contention and Zombie Lover

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:

Rationale of the Dirty Joke: Analysis of Sexual Humor, by G. Legman (1968, non-fiction). The author claims that the true key to any person's nature is his favorite dirty joke, and he goes far to prove it. This is the world's largest compendium of dirty jokes, with commentary that is striking in its relevance to the human condition. There is perhaps more insight into real human nature here than in any other book published.

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.

 

KEITH MILES
Author (as "Edward Marston") of The King's Evil and
The Wanton Angel

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.

The German Lesson, by Siegfried Lenz (1968, fiction). Another masterful novel about the Second World War, set in a penal institution. Siggi Jepson, a boy with a mania for stealing paintings, is ordered to write an essay on "The Joys of Duty" and delivers the most enthralling account of the tension between the artist and society.

Elmer Gantry, by Sinclair Lewis (1927, fiction). Lewis has few readers these days, but I am one of them and Elmer Gantry is my favorite, a powerful satire on religious hypocrisy and a novel that has great relevance in these days of TV evangelism. It's funny, provocative, fearless, mocking and beautifully written.

 

FREDERICK ZACKEL
Author of Cocaine and Blue Eyes and a contributing editor of January Magazine

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...

My third choice is Beloved, by Toni Morrison (1987, fiction). I believe she is the greatest living American writer. This is not debatable.


STAN JONES
Author of
White Sky, Black Ice

An American Tragedy, by Theodore Dreiser (1948, fiction). Why? Because I love social realism. This guy was the Charles Dickens of our century.

U.S.A. (comprising The 42nd Parallel, 1919, and The Big Money), by John Dos Passos (1936, fiction). Why? Because the guy wrote great, almost poetry disguised as prose, and understood the tragedy in success.

On the Road, by Jack Kerouac (1957, fiction). Why? Because Jack also wrote great and this book showed that a life focused on experience rather than achievement could be meaningful.

Next week, my list might be different. This week, this is it.

 

TESS GALLAGHER
Author of At the Owl Woman Saloon and The Lover of Horses

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
Author of
Vengeance and The Dog Who Bit a Policeman

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.

 

EMRU TOWNSEND
A January Magazine contributor and freelance writer living in Montreal

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
experience, in comic-strip form.

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.

 

SHEREE FITCH
Literary activist and the author of several children's books

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 Diviners, by Margaret Laurence (1974, fiction). What more to say than that I love, adore, worship Margaret Laurence's work. I am currently re-reading The Diviners for the umpteenth time. Every time I go back to it, depending on where my life is, I find yet another revelation. This is the writer who I would take to the moon when I go.

 

HOLLY KULAK
A contributor to January Magazine

The Roaring Girl, by Greg Hollingshead (1997, fiction), because the short stories are at once brilliant and funny, to boot.

Dinner Along the Amazon, by Timothy Findley (1984, fiction), because the author receives so much attention for his novels and I think his short stories get neglected. Findley is a terrific, idiosyncratic writer with an unmistakable and distinctive voice. While it's commonly known that his novels are disturbing in their preponderance of madness, his short stories are often equally haunting, but can also be whimsical and full of rare humor and wit. He writes some of the best dinner party scenes I've ever read, making a person roar with laughter and delight.

Birds of America, by Lorrie Moore (1998, fiction), because her stories never fail to surprise, astonish and challenge me. Her language is always fresh, and the woman's wit never seems to wane. She has truly become a master of her craft.

Our Readable Century