he Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (Back Bay, $14). It's no wonder that this novel has become the bible for every American punk since 1951. When I first read it, Holden Caulfield was a flag bearer for everything I thought at that time about my stupid school and stupid family and stupid this and that. It was only after rereading it in my 40s that I realized it was about a sad kid coming apart over the death of his sister.
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (Dover, $3.50). If I had to pick one favorite book, this might be it. I just love this novel — the plotting, the characters, the atmosphere in the graveyard and the convent. Everything that's wonderful about Dickens is here.
The Beautiful and the Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald (World Library Classics, $5). This is just a marvelous story — funny in a kind of awful way. I reread it last year and was surprised at how it mirrors the experience of a segment of today's youth who have advanced degrees and, we're told, don't know what to do with themselves. Gloria and Anthony Patch, a New York couple, wait and wait and wait to come into an inheritance; that's all they do.
I, Claudius by Robert Graves (Vintage, $16). Graves's novel about Rome in the 1st century B.C. is a real trip back in time. When you're reading it, you want to go there every day. You want to follow events there, instead of the ones in your own life, because they're so startling.
The Plague by Albert Camus (Vintage, $15). In college, I took a whole class in existentialism; my father went ape s--- when I told him existentialism was the philosophy that says God is dead. But I finally understood it only after I read Camus's novel about a North African city hit by an epidemic.
Freddy's Book by John Gardner (White Pine Press, $16). Gardner's 1980 novel is an amazing work of invention. A professor on a lecture tour is staying at the home of a fellow academic when the host's big, weird, painfully shy son shares a book he's written about 16th-century Sweden and the devil coming in to straighten out affairs. This is a great, great book, and strange as can be.
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