Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges (Grove, $14). I first encountered the great Argentine fabulist on my 22nd birthday, a day I remember because I was so profoundly influenced and moved by his deeply philosophical imagination — abstract, almost mathematical, and yet powerfully human. I've been haunted ever since by this collection's masterpiece, "The Library of Babel."
The Pursuit of the Millennium by Norman Cohn (Oxford, $25). A kind of historical companion to Borges's fiction because both provide relentless, yet deeply sympathetic, chronicles of human folly. This fascinating history of the various apocalyptic sects that arose in the Middle Ages reveals the inexhaustible human longing for certainty — and the terror it invariably unleashes.
Four Essays on Liberty by Isaiah Berlin (out of print). Simple, straightforward political philosophy in defense of the moderation of liberal democracy. It's a 20th-century elaboration of John Stuart Mill's On Liberty. Reading both in my early 20s forever banished any temptation I might have had toward political romanticism.
The Feynman Lectures on Physics by Richard Feynman (Basic, $220). For a taste of the real thing, physics must be understood mathematically rather than by analogy. For that, this set of lectures — taken from Feynman's introductory course at Caltech — is unmatched. Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! — his brilliant autobiography — works as a companion volume.
My System by Aron Nimzowitsch (Quality Chess, $30). The most important and influential book of chess theory ever written. A bit dated, but foundational. For something less didactic, read George Steiner's Fields of Force, a dazzling book on the 1972 Fischer-Spassky match.
The Devil Drives by Fawn Brodie (Norton, $18) and Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence (Wordsworth, $11). I was young when I read these. Perhaps you have to be. But everyone should at least once indulge in the romance of the great British adventurers — one, a 19th-century polymath who discovered the source of the Nile; the other, his 20th-century counterpart, who lost himself in the deserts of Arabia.
— Charles Krauthammer is a Pulitzer-winning syndicated political columnist and a commentator on Fox News and PBS. His new book of columns, Things That Matter, assembles three decades' worth of reflections on politics, science, and life.