Dangling Man by Saul Bellow (Penguin, $14). Bellow explores the psyche of a young man waiting to hear if he's been drafted. I don't know if anyone's ever better represented the workings of the mind in crisis, or the mental state of a human whose life might change, permanently, based on forces far beyond his control.
The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles (Ecco, $15). Every time I read this book I love it more. Terrible things happen to its characters, three young Americans traveling through Morocco, but Bowles's writing is so hypnotic that the calamities are seen through a certain anodyne haze. And despite its darkness, it's the most humane of existential novels.
Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller (Dramatists Play Service, $8). I've only seen the play performed once, a long time ago, but a few years ago I reread the text and was astounded by how funny it is on the page. I know it's considered pretty dour by many, but the play is so nimble and knowing. There's a satirical topspin there that's not often acknowledged.
Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre (New Directions, $14). Written in 1938, this novel still feels electric. It's about a young man disgusted by the futility of his existence, but reading the book is strangely invigorating — great art as a near-religious experience.
Something Happened by Joseph Heller (Simon & Schuster, $16). Here an American businessman, Bob Slocum, looks back and forward on a life that seems devoid of meaning. A soldier in WWII, he now finds himself in an office where virtually nothing happens. So he fought as a young man for the right to do nothing the rest of his life. Which raises the question: What's more absurd — war, or the antiseptic drudgery of so many workplaces?
Selected Writings of the American Transcendentalists by George Hochfield (Yale, $24). This is a fantastic collection. Anyone wanting to understand the American DNA then and now must read the transcendentalists — pious, bold, passionate, obstinate, naïve, and capable of breathtaking acts of beauty.