Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (Bantam, $5). This is the quintessential American novel — deep, encyclopedic, brash. Though it was derided in its own time (some people thought the author must have gone crazy), no one tells the story of idealism and absolutism run amok, of expansionism, of the limits of knowledge, and of doubt and belief, better than Melville. I've read this book countless times and keep learning from it.
The Poems of Emily Dickinson (Belknap, $22). Dickinson was a creature of the 19th century, but she traveled far and wide in imagination and with her lexicon. She's a poet of small spaces and inner drama; you can follow her anywhere and learn of feelings you never before could articulate, or knew you knew.
A Stillness at Appomattox by Bruce Catton (Anchor, $17). Narrative nonfiction at its best. Bruce Catton recounts with insight and compassion, especially for the forgotten soldiers, the harrowing last days of the Civil War. Not only that: Catton carefully documents where he learned what while never damping the novelistic drama of his prose.
Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner (Vintage, $15). In the twisting tale of Thomas Sutpen and his overweening ambition, Faulkner anatomizes the Southern past, transforming it into a drama about race, class, clan, and miscegenation. As such, the novel is about the implosion known as the Civil War, and how it changed everything for Southerners.
Personal Memoirs by Ulysses S. Grant (Modern Library, $16). Gertrude Stein called this one of her favorite books. Originally published by Mark Twain — another Grant admirer — this spare, unforgettable work is not only a story of strategy and war but also a memoir that ranks with such classics as The Education of Henry Adams and Vladimir Nabokov's Speak, Memory.
A Legacy by Sybille Bedford (Counterpoint, $15). Tender and droll, Sybille Bedford's 1956 novel was one of the very best books published in the second half of the 20th century. It's not set anywhere near America, but it brilliantly documents a long-ago Prussian way of life to reveal how individual lives are coiled inexorably together with history.