In Our Time by Ernest Hemingway (Scribner, $14). Before Hemingway was a famously macho world icon, he was a magnificent 20-something prose prodigy. He does more poetic work with two- to three-sentence clusters than any writer I know. I teach Indian Camp as an example of constant, meaningful escalation.
The Complete Works of Isaac Babel (Norton, $25). Babel was as laconic as Hemingway, but more lyrical. I don't know a writer who has expressed the essential strangeness of childhood better: real as a dusty couch, yet full of mythic beauty. In the Basement is the funniest, most uncomfortable story ever written on the (touchy) subject of class.
Dispatches by Michael Herr (Vintage, $15). I re-read Dispatches whenever I want to be reminded of how intelligent and communicative prose can be. This is the best writing about war anyone ever accomplished. Herr is a legendary stylist, a great reporter, and a profound human being, and this book feels newer and more essential every time I open it.
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison (Vintage, $14). This book reawakened part of me that had been slumbering since my young Catholic days—the part that knows that the point of life on earth is to learn to be more sympathetic to others. This novel — which was Morrison's first — is both a modeling and a thrilling enactment of that notion.
Visions of Gerard by Jack Kerouac (Penguin, $15). Kerouac's heartfelt ode to his brother, who died young, and to his hometown of Lowell, Mass., always fires me up anew about the power of language, and reminds me that the highest aim of writing is to jolt us (albeit temporarily) into a more awake and uncertain state of mind.
The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol (Vintage, $17). Gogol is, to me, the most morally complete writer: baffled, outraged, reverent, mock-didactic, mocking, all at once. He honors life by feeling no one way about it — his stories contain a dazzling multiplicity of voices and moral stances, none of which he ever fully settles upon.
George Saunders is one of the most acclaimed short-story writers of our time and a professor at Syracuse University. His new book, Congratulations, By the Way, reproduces a commencement speech he gave last year on the topic of kindness.