Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell (Mariner, $15). The 20th century's great drama of war, ideological struggle, hope, and disillusionment, told without histrionics or self-display. The voice is both passionately humane and ruthlessly detached. I found this book in a Barcelona bookshop at age 23, a very low moment, and wanted to be a writer — that writer.
A Bend in the River by V.S. Naipaul (Vintage, $16). Naipaul is proof that a terrible person can be a great novelist. This work is set in Mobutu Sese Seko's Zaire in the 1970s, when a lot of Western nonsense was projected onto Africa. Naipaul strips it all away and sees the truth. Every sentence is precise, beautiful, and frightening. He makes clarity mesmerizing.
U.S.A. by John Dos Passos (Library of America, $40). This trilogy of historical fiction chronicles America in the first three decades of the 20th century. Flat in tone, dazzling in construction, it used to be read alongside Fitzgerald and Hemingway, then fell out of fashion. But all the national myths, obsessions, aspirations, and fads we know today — our American grandeur and squalor — are presaged here.
The Age of Reform by Richard Hofstadter (Vintage, $15). Hofstadter was a highly readable scholar. He was also a sober liberal who believed in progress but didn't turn away from its underside. Here he examines the period from the Populism of the 1890s to the New Deal, when America became modern and the state learned to tame capitalism. Read this as a companion to the Dos Passos.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo (Random House, $18). Boo spent years in a Mumbai slum, watching, listening, recording, digging. Then she condensed all that research into a tale that will devastate and infuriate you. Only a few novels are as good as her journalism.
Bleak House by Charles Dickens (Bantam, $7). Dickens was sui generis, but I keep meeting his outsize, struggling characters in places like Yangon, Myanmar, and Lagos, Nigeria. Societies and literary styles have changed since the 1850s, but there's nothing dated about the moral vision.
— George Packer is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of The Assassins' Gate, an acclaimed 2005 book on the war in Iraq. His new book, The Unwinding, depicts an America weakened by a fraying social contract.