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Jim Lehrer's 6 favorite 20th century novels
The former NewsHour anchor admires the work of Kurt Vonnegut, J.D. Salinger, and F. Scott Fitzgerald
 
Former PBS "NewsHour" anchor Jim Lehrer is the author of "Tension City," which takes an inside look at presidential debates.
Former PBS "NewsHour" anchor Jim Lehrer is the author of "Tension City," which takes an inside look at presidential debates.
Don Perdue

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (Signet, $5). The pitch-perfect story of Lily Bart, a doomed New York socialite wannabe, is a superb mix of a page-turner, a spot-on portrait of times and places, and a wrenching examination of honor and compromise. Read Wharton’s fourth novel: It haunts.

God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (Dial, $15). I say bless Kurt Vonnegut for creating Eliot Rosewater and the hilarious Rosewaters of Indiana. I also bless Kurt Vonnegut because he was one of the novelists I wanted to be when I grew up. (The other was Ernest Hemingway.)

The Strangers in the House by Georges Simenon (NYRB Classics, $14). I think The Strangers in the House is one of the best of Simenon’s more than 400 novels and novellas — most of which are masterful nuggets less than 200 pages long. They are detective stories set in Paris and psychological traumas set in a variety of minds and locations.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (Scribner, $15). The Great Gatsby works on every one of the multitude of levels required of superior, serious fiction. And it is absolutely dazzling from its beginning to its famous last line: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (Simon & Schuster, $16). I first read the tale of Capt. Yossarian and his fellow World War II airmen when it was published, in 1961. Many considered Heller’s debut off-the-wall, outlandish—and crazy. But having then just ended my own military service, I found it to be very much on target, wonderful—and most sane.

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (Back Bay, $14). Holden Caulfield was once the most admired growing boy in American literature. I have only one suggestion for those who think of him now as a passing fancy and a cliché: Read The Catcher in the Rye again and see how wrong you are about Salinger’s 1951 novel.

Jim Lehrer’s new book, Tension City, is a history of televised presidential debates, 11 of which he has moderated.

 

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