Bartleby, the Scrivener by Herman Melville (Dover, $3). I am still amazed by Melville's ability to create characters in a few quick strokes. His tale of Bartleby, first described as "pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn," is one of those literary miracles that should be read rather than talked about.
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (Wordsworth, $4). Ever since I first discovered The Little Prince as an adolescent, I have carried a copy with me across the continents. As they say farewell, the Fox tells the Little Prince, "One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eye." That short sentence for me captures the essence of literature and art.
Loitering With Intent by Muriel Spark (New Directions, $16). "Rejoicing" — the very last word that appears in Loitering With Intent — captures the entire book's mood and message. A fictional counterpoint to Spark's 1992 autobiography, this novel tells how one Fleur Talbot became a woman and a writer. It's a book as irresistible as its author — a manifestation of her meticulous, confident, joyous, mischievous spirit.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (Scribner, $15). Each time I read The Great Gatsby, I feel my heart break. No one else has captured as crisply as Fitzgerald the American dream, the glory of its pursuit and the inevitable sense of betrayal and despair once it is realized — once it is, as Nick puts it, touched by the "foul dust" of reality.
Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin (Beacon, $15). Reading this essay collection for the first time was like diving into deep waters and then suddenly surfacing: You feel the liberation of opening your eyes and seeing the sky above you. Baldwin demonstrates how to passionately articulate social and political issues and yet remain a writer, not a pamphleteer.
Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov (Vintage, $15). Timofey Pavlovich Pnin, a nontenured Russian academic at an elite American university, is a modern, more complicated version ofDon Quixote, tackling imaginary windmills and real frauds and academic shysters. Pnin and Lolita are the two most poignant and memorable of Nabokov's characters.
— Azar Nafisi is the author of the best-selling memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran. Her new book, The Republic of Imagination, uses three celebrated novels to argue for fiction's indispensable role in American life.