V. by Thomas Pynchon (Perennial Classics, $19). I first picked up Pynchon's wild, picaresque 1963 debut at age 15, intrigued by the exotic name and cover. I discovered a mind-opening, hallucinatory portrait of a culture in early upheaval, and conclusive proof that postmodernism — and difficulty in general — could be a blast.
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (Vintage, $16). Each of the Russian émigré's books taught me something different about the possibilities of English (non-native for both of us). What I really love in Lolita isn't the transgressive love story but the love song to midcentury America, intoned with bemused ardor by one very odd fish out of water.
Max Perkins by A. Scott Berg (Berkley, $18). You don't see many biographies of book editors, because dramatizing their lives is hard work. What Berg did with the correspondence between Perkins and Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and the logorrheic Thomas Wolfe mirrors what Perkins did so heroically: He'd machete his way through a paper jungle and come out with a masterpiece.
Another Life by Michael Korda (Random House, $17). In another rare beast — a publishing memoir worth reading — the Simon & Schuster veteran uses what Berg could not: memory. He tackles his industry's postwar transformation from gentleman's profession to too-well-oiled machine, sketching characters with the finesse of a great comic novelist.
Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion (FSG Classics, $15). Every fan has his or her favorite in this collection of dispatches on the social cataclysm of the 1960s. Mine is "On Morality," a brief against idealism that must have sounded reactionary then but now reads like a focused attack on the all-pervasive politics of emotional grievance.
The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe (Picador, $16). Wolfe's most restrained book is his best: a complicated celebration of the brave test pilots who pioneered space travel but chafed at being overqualified guinea pigs. Wolfe's reporting drilled down to capture the psyche of a nation on the brink of 1980s triumphalism.