The two-time Booker Prize–winning author’s most recent novel is Parrot and Olivier in America (Knopf).
The Radetzky March (1932)
By Joseph Roth
One could say this great novel is “about” the end of the Hapsburg Empire. I think it’s about the sentences, the light, the sad sweet poetry of loyalty and hubris, our ludicrous expectation that the world will always be the same.
Blood Meridian (1985)
By Cormac Mccarthy
A very modern book that everyone calls biblical. As with all great fiction, you’ll get drunk and die of the language.
Midnight’s Children (1981)
By Salman Rushdie
Still my favorite of his novels, and what could be more modern, more historical than India’s independence and partition? Saleem Sinai has Gogol’s nose and Rushdie’s musicality and wit.
Riddley Walker (1980)
By Russell Hoban
What do you call a future that feels like an apocalyptic past or a possible parallel of the scary stupid present? I call it a work of genius. An entire invented history and lexicon, one of the masterworks of the past 40 years.
Specimen Days (2005)
By Michael Cunningham
A heart and imagination that can embrace the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and a love story between an android and a sexy lizard.
War and Peace (1869)
By Leo Tolstoy
Its original title was The Year 1805. When the first part of it was published, you might have called it a historical novel—it was certainly, from its birth, about the past. Tolstoy refused to call it a novel.
An Artist of the Floating World (1986)
By Kazuo Ishiguro
If the past is a foreign country, what is a foreign country in the past? This doubly magnificent invention gets better and more miraculous every year.
The Eye in the Door (1993)
By Pat Barker
The second of three books—the “Regeneration” trilogy—all of which deal with World War I and its aftermath. You can smell and taste the time and place, but most magically, you enjoy the wonder of a female novelist inhabiting male sexuality in all its grimy spitting sweaty truth.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000)
By Michael Chabon
Who knew there were comic strips in historical novels? Zap. Bam. Oooooof. Shazam! Chabon surely busts apart the pigeonhole.
SF’s current visionary has a new novel, Zero History (Putnam), due out September 7.
Tiger! Tiger! (1956)
By Alfred Bester
It’s also known as The Stars My Destination. My favorite literary expression of mid-century Manhattan, and I doubt I’d have written without having read it.
By Samuel R. Delany
It won’t work unless you can allow it to become your head for a few weeks; it helps if you’re rather young. Closest thing I know to a great “sixties” novel.
By M. J. Engh
A very different sort of alien invasion: America as Earth. One of the best works of science fiction you probably haven’t heard of.
The Crystal World (1966)
By J. G. Ballard
It’s hard to pick just one Ballard, but you could certainly start with this.
The Forever War (1974)
By Joe Haldeman
The most adult and intelligent novel of military science fiction.
By Keith Roberts
The Roman Catholic Church still rules England in 1968, Protestantism having been destroyed in the wake of the 1588 assassination of Queen Elizabeth.
Random Acts of Senseless Violence (1993)
By Jack Womack
A heart-rending and perpetually more likely near-future Manhattan.
Great Work of Time (1991)
By John Crowley
Vast and all-encompassing, it’s a novel magically disguised as a novella.
Holy Fire (1996)
By Bruce Sterling
A glacially logical yet emotionally intelligent extrapolation of age-extension technology. Also brilliant on bohemias.
By Thomas M. Disch
Everyday life in Manhattan, 2025, at 334 East 11th Street, a vast housing project. I think of it whenever anyone seriously suggests my work is dystopian.
The author of multiple genre-bending autobiographies of her own, including The Mother Knot and the best-selling The Kiss.
Boyhood: Scenes From a Provincial Life (1997)
By J. M. Coetzee
I reread this once a year and am always surprised by his inspired use of the third person. It’s so simple an artifice, the apparent vantage of a consciousness other than Coetzee’s own, and has such profound effects, granting the narrative a necessary sense of distance.
The Lover (1984)
By Marguerite Duras
I admire cool renderings of hot topics. Her detached, almost documentary account of the illicit affair she had as an underage French girl with an older Chinese man is often called an “autobiographical novel.” As it’s written, the strangeness of her story has less to do with its exotic setting—Indochina in the thirties—than with an erotic fixation so profound it destroys the lovers’ autonomy.
A Fan’s Notes (1968)
By Frederick Exley
One of the few long narratives that unfold on a knife edge of comedy and anguish, never tumbling into one at the expense of the other. Exley renders the epic mishap that is his life with a keen appreciation of the absurd. As difficult as this talented, despairing alcoholic must have been to live with, there is no better company on the page.
To the Is-Land (1982)
By Janet Frame
The first of a trilogy best known by the title of its second installment, An Angel at My Table, Janet Frame’s vision of childhood is entirely her own, sui generis, and her talent is akin to alchemy: Somehow she turns trauma, poverty, and alienation into suspenseful and soaring beauty.
Fierce Attachments (1987)
By Vivian Gornick
A lot of writers dwell on their relationships with their mothers, but only a few are worth reading. Gornick is one of them. The attachments she describes are funny, volatile, crazy-making, and … unkillable.
The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts (1976)
By Maxine Hong Kingston
Kingston grew up in California’s Central Valley as a Chinese-American for whom her cultural inheritance—the characters and myths from the Old World—was as real as the material world. Perhaps not every reader’s childhood was a ready vessel for her grandparents to overfill with stories and superstitions, but mine was, and reading this was both familiar and strange, vertiginous in a way I enjoy.
Becoming a Man: Half a Life Story (1992)
By Paul Monette
Monette grew up gay and closeted, and his courageous and honest struggle to embrace himself for what he is applies to every human being who has ever tried to live a life of secrecy or amputate a portion of their soul.
Speak, Memory (1951)
By Vladimir Nabokov
A self-consciously artistic rendering of the author’s early life in Tsarist Russia, and a book I love because its subject is memory rather than experience.
Running in the Family (1982)
By Michael Ondaatje
A celebration of eccentricity—Ondaatje’s impressionistic rendering of growing up in Sri Lanka among a willfully idiosyncratic cast of characters. I love any book that makes my family seem almost normal.
Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness (1990)
By William Styron
Short and stark, every strand of ego peeled away, this is Styron’s lucid commentary on his own depression. I admire writers who succeed at what I consider the first demand of art: that the artist vivisect himself without pity, without hesitation, determined to reveal whatever he might find.
A writer for Saturday Night Live, Rich has just published his first novel, Elliot Allagash (Random House).
Our Dumb Century (1999)
By the Writers of ‘The Onion’
This book made me laugh so hard during Hebrew school that my rabbi kicked me out of the classroom. I wasn’t even reading it at the time—just thinking about it. Hard to pick a favorite headline, but I’ll go with “Stalin Announces Five-Year ‘Everybody Dies’ Plan.”
Me Talk Pretty One Day (2000)
By David Sedaris
He’s written six genius collections, but this one contains my favorite memoir ever: “You Can’t Kill the Rooster,” a poignant, profane tribute to the author’s kid brother.
The Magic Kingdom (1985)
By Stanley Elkin
A British do-gooder decides to take a group of terminally ill children on a last-gasp trip to Walt Disney World. It’s shocking that this novel got published, but I’m thankful that it did.
Decline and Fall (1928)
By Evelyn Waugh
Some of this novel takes place at a prep school and some of it at a prison. In Waugh’s bitter universe there isn’t much difference.
Claw Your Way to the Top: How to Become the Head of a Major Corporation in Roughly a Week (1986)
By Dave Barry
Barry is so insanely prolific that at a certain point it became cool to hate him. That’s too bad, because he’s really funny, especially in this corporate satire.
The Magic Christian (1959)
By Terry Southern
In this episodic novel, Southern concocts the perfect comic hero: a practical-joke enthusiast with unlimited time and money. Like Wodehouse, only full of sex and filth.
Love Is Hell (1984)
By Matt Groening
This collection of strips about love is witty, moving, and—since it’s by a comedy writer—extremely bitter.
My Uncle Oswald (1979)
By Roald Dahl
Dahl is beloved for his YA masterpieces, but Oswald is decidedly adult. The title character is a madcap bon vivant who uses his riches to seduce as many women as possible.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979)
By Douglas Adams
One of my favorite jokes in Simpsons history comes when an injured robot asks, “Why … why was I programmed to feel pain?” As with many great gags, Adams did it first with Marvin the Paranoid Android. I’ve reread the Hitchhiker’s books so many times that I can recite them, annoyingly, from memory.
The Great American Novel (1973)
By Philip Roth
Roth has better books, but I think this baseball fable is his funniest. In one scene, the hapless Port Ruppert Mundys take on a baseball team from an insane asylum. Now, that’s a premise!
The Mysterious Bookshop’s owner edited the new Agents of Treachery (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard), a collection of previously unpublished spy fiction.
The Tears of Autumn (1975)
By Charles Mccarry
The best novel by America’s greatest writer of espionage fiction is also the most credible account of President Kennedy’s assassination. You will believe it’s what really happened.
The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1963)
By John Le Carré
This one changed espionage fiction forever with the introduction of moral relativity: Le Carré posited that the heads of the British spy network were no better than their Soviet counterparts.
The Garden of Weapons (1980)
By John Gardner
I much prefer Gardner’s thrillers starring brilliant, fearless Big Herbie Kruger to his James Bond stuff. In this one, Kruger’s setting a trap for the KGB in East Berlin—and they, of course, are setting one for him.
Child 44 (2008)
By Tom Rob Smith
Gorky Park meets 1984. The novel, loosely based on a true story, is set in the Russia of Joseph Stalin and follows a government agent investigating a serial killer who is protected by the Communist Party’s official policy: There was no crime in the Soviet Union.
Empire of Lies (2008)
By Andrew Klavan
In addition to thrills, Klavan’s story—a Muslim-terrorist plot to blow up part of New York—offers a cogent indictment of academia, which gives such an uncritical platform to Islamic radicals, and the media, which refuses to report what seems obvious to the rest of us.
Spies of the Balkans (June 15, 2010)
By Alan Furst
The World War II era belongs to Furst, and his most recent novel matches the excellence of the previous ten, which are all set in various European countries in the years leading up to global warfare. In this one, intrigue plays out in 1940 Greece as the Axis threat looms.
Six Days of the Condor (1974)
By James Grady
It’s now a cliché of espionage that the bad guys in the CIA are a greater danger to American agents than their foreign enemies. But it was new when Grady wrote it, and no one has done it better. Probably the most influential spy novel of the past 36 years.
Word of Honor (1985)By Nelson Demille
The best-seller-list regular gets more attention for his combination of politically incorrect humor and nail-biting suspense, but this Vietnam novel—bouncing between a military trial and the actions of an honorable man in an intolerable situation—is as serious as an Ebola outbreak in its depiction of the hero’s moral dilemma.
The Cold War Swap (1966)
By Ross Thomas
Wisecracking American agent Michael Padillo and his friend “Mac” McCorkle, partners in a West German bar during the Cold War, make their debut in this Edgar-winning novel, in which they haplessly try to bring rogue agents back to the West. It manages to make death and near death experiences seem both hard boiled and circuslike. Thomas’s Briarpatch and the totally original caper Chinaman’s Chance also belong on any best-of list.
A Coffin for Dimitrios (1939)
By Eric Ambler
Ambler practically invented the modern spy novel by turning the protagonist from a fearless James Bond superhero into a victim of circumstance out of his depth, who performs courageous acts primarily to survive.
Her first book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Crown), has spent fifteen weeks (and counting) on the Times best-sellers list.
The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, And the Collision of Two Cultures (1997)
By Anne Fadiman
An important and beautiful tale of a cultural miscommunication, a tragic clash between scientists and nonscientists, that doesn’t demonize either side.
In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity (1985)
By Daniel J. Kevles
A thick, meticulously footnoted history that I inhaled faster than I read most novels. Unfortunately, it’s nonfiction: an astonishing chapter of U.S. history in which scientists attempted to “improve” the human race by eliminating minorities, “immorality,” and “inferiors” through selective breeding and worse.
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat: And Other Clinical Tales (1985)
By Oliver Sacks
I love anything by Oliver Sacks, but this collection of essays about his patients and their fantastical array of neurologic ailments was the first I fell for. He brings himself and his readers into the minds and lives of his patients, reminding us that there are always people behind the science.
Confessions of a Knife (1979)
By Richard Selzer
I still have my falling-apart undergraduate copy of Selzer’s collection of essays about being a surgeon. The one that haunted me: female surgeons removing the breast of a female patient, a “sisterly” ritual.
Love at Goon Park (2002)
By Deborah Blum
A wonderful character study of Harry Harlow, the dark, eccentric scientist whose amazing, often disturbing research on primates led to much of our understanding of child-rearing. Her new The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York is riveting, too.
And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic (1987)
By Randy Shilts
One of the most important science books ever written, with storytelling few can match. The first piece I read by Shilts was an essay called “Talking AIDS to Death,” a follow-up to And the Band Played On. I finished it and said to myself, I want to write like that guy.
A Long Line of Cells (1990)
By Lewis Thomas
No one has ever written as clearly or beautifully about science. I fell for him with this line: “My cells are no longer the pure line entities I was raised with … I like to think that they work in my interest, that each breath they draw for me, but perhaps it is they who walk through the local park in the early morning, sensing my senses, listening to my music, thinking my thoughts.”
His Brother’s Keeper: A Story From the Edge of Medicine (2004)
By Jonathan Weiner
The tale of a mechanical engineer who turned himself into a geneticist with hopes of saving his brother’s life. I just started reading Weiner’s brand-new Long for This World: The Strange Science of Immortality, which is bizarre, fascinating, and fun.
The Best American Science Writing
Edited By Jesse Cohen
The Best American Science and Nature Writing
Edited By Tim Folger
I’m cheating by listing two titles for my last pick, and they actually account for a whole shelf because they’re annual anthologies. But they’re essential: I own every edition of each, and I read them religiously.