A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce (Dover, $3.50). Portrait is the book that made me, at age 19, want to become a novelist. Before Joyce settled down to write Ulysses, he had already made his mark with this coming-of-age story. Nothing can compare to Stephen Dedalus gazing out at the sea and deciding to become an artist, to "re-create life out of life."
Mao II by Don DeLillo (Penguin, $15). With a prologue that's worth the price of admission, this remains my favorite DeLillo. A reclusive novelist, believing that the cultural role of the artist has been subsumed by terrorists, abandons his long-gestating novel and heads out into the world, with disastrous results.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John le Carré (Penguin, $16). Read this and try to argue that espionage novels are a lesser form of literature. While I hold other spy novels in high esteem, Le Carré's seminal tale of a cuckolded, retired intelligence agent hunting through files and backgrounds for a mole remains the yardstick against which I regularly (and with disappointment) measure my own fiction.
The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien (Mariner, $15). Is this Vietnam War book a story collection or a novel? Is it autobiography or fiction? Is its subject soldiering or fiction writing? A virtuoso, metafictional performance that poses more questions than it answers, The Things They Carried ends up becoming quite possibly America's greatest war novel.
The Lover by Marguerite Duras (Pantheon, $12). As brief and intense as an ill-conceived love affair, and just as memorable. A 15-year-old French girl in Vietnam embarks on an affair with an older, rich Chinese man, telling her story with a lyricism and raw emotion that's hard to shake.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera (Harper Perennial, $15). How is it possible to write such a philosophically challenging work that is this entertaining and wildly funny? I still don't know, though I've read the novel innumerable times. Everything builds from a simple dilemma — Tomas must choose between domestication and sexual freedom — and snowballs into a celebration of the rich and bountiful breadth of living. I want to be Kundera when I grow up.