Alphabetic by author, favorite work in parentheses.
Isaac Asimov (Gold, short stories). I know his Foundation series is canon, and I enjoyed them, but if I had to pick one book to get the feel of Asimov’s work, it would be Gold, a collection of his short stories.
Saul Bellow (Seize the Day). This is a good one to pick for people who don’t like to read. It’s short.
James Dickey (Deliverance). I met him. He spoke at my college graduation.
William Faulkner (The Sound and the Fury). Spend a whole semester on this. Difficult read. The same story is told four times, by different character’s perspectives, starting with a simpleton.
Ernest Hemingway (The Sun Also Rises). This is his critique of, and defense of, his own generation.
Frank Herbert (Dune). So brilliant. So rich. So why did all the sequels suck?
Herman Hesse (Siddhartha)
Robert Heinlein (Starship Troopers). I didn’t read this until I was an adult, and found it surprisingly good. In the novel, Johnny Rico is Filipino, not white Argentinian as in Paul Verhoeven’s movie (which I enjoyed as brutal, anti-fascist farce).
Homer (Iliad and Odyssey, translated by Richmond Lattimore). I read these every few years. They’re like extended war chants.
William Kennedy (Ironweed)
Gary Jennings (Aztec) — Took him 10 years to write this. He died while writing the sequel, which was finished by someone else, and is only half as good.
James Joyce (Dubliners) — I know everyone worships Ulysses, but that is a hard read. Dubliners is a better introduction to his style, and for me, taught me how to pay attention to details.
Stephen King (Misery) — There are two kinds of Stephen King fans. Those who love Misery, and those who love The Stand. I haven’t even tried to read The Stand, though I may someday. Misery is about drug addiction, the author/fan relationship, and the need to express yourself.
Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird). I taught this during my semester of student-teaching. It’s beautifully written, but I’ve always had difficulty understanding why she never wrote anything else.
Gabriel García Márquez (One Hundred Years of Solitude). This is the primer for Latin American magical realism.
Cormac McCarthy (The Road). The best prose I’ve read in the 21st century.
John Kennedy Toole (A Confederacy of Dunces). Laugh out loud funny. Too bad he killed himself before it was published (mostly due to depression from rejection). If self-publishing had been a respectable and affordable thing in his day, he’d still be alive.
Vladimir Nabokov (Lolita). This man is way too smart for his own good.
Robert Pirsig (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance)
Erich Maria Remarque (All Quiet on the Western Front)
JD Salinger (Catcher in the Rye). After you’ve read his main work, read the short stories.
Mary Shelly (Frankenstein). The first scifi book was written by an 18 year old young woman, on a bet.
John Steinbeck (The Grapes of Wrath). This book is so beautiful it makes me mad. Don’t read this if you’re about to try to write something. It’ll just depress you.
JRR Tolkien (The Hobbit). To me, Tolkien’s works decline in interest, in order of publication. Loved The Hobbit. Liked Fellowship of the Ring. Two Towers was OK. Fell asleep in Return of the King.
John Updike (short stories)
Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse-Five). I met him, too. He did a talk at my college. Asked him about working with editors. He didn’t know what I was talking about. Later learned he re-writes each page until it’s perfect (in his eyes), and that’s it. Never revises. I guess his editor was just a paper-pusher.
Alice Walker (The Color Purple). This book is a beautiful beat-down.
Maya Angelou (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings)
Isaac Asimov (It’s Been a Good Life)
Joseph Campbell (The Masks of God). You can’t just down and read these four books (Primitive Mythology, Occidental Mythology, Oriental Mythology, and Creative Mythology) like normal books. They’re so dense, you just read a piece at a time, as interests you. Campbell is a traumatized ex-Catholic, and his mindset reminds me of the traumatized ex-Jews I had as college professors: He’s trying to extract the good parts while leaving the confusing, contradictory, and ugly parts behind. I don’t think that works, but it’s a noble effort.
Alex Haley (Autobiography of Malcolm X). This book made me hate white people for a while. Amazing that, with his experiences, he was heading toward an inclusive, tolerant version of Islam… which of course is why they killed him.
Miyamoto Musashi (The Book of Five Rings, translated by Harris). This is interesting to me because of my lifelong enjoyment of budo training (aikido, karate) and related stuff (Western fencing). I hate it when people try to adopt it to business school. It’s about killing, not project management. Still, since I don’t kill people, I shouldn’t complain when people adapt it to their needs.
PJ O’Rourke (Holidays in Hell)
Yamamoto Tsunetomo (Hagakure, translated by Wilson)
Cintra Wilson (A Massive Swelling)