The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (Signet, $5). The pitch-perfect story of Lily Bart, a doomed New York socialite wannabe, is a superb mix of a page-turner, a spot-on portrait of times and places, and a wrenching examination of honor and compromise. Read Wharton’s fourth novel: It haunts.
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (Dial, $15). I say bless Kurt Vonnegut for creating Eliot Rosewater and the hilarious Rosewaters of Indiana. I also bless Kurt Vonnegut because he was one of the novelists I wanted to be when I grew up. (The other was Ernest Hemingway.)
The Strangers in the House by Georges Simenon (NYRB Classics, $14). I think The Strangers in the House is one of the best of Simenon’s more than 400 novels and novellas — most of which are masterful nuggets less than 200 pages long. They are detective stories set in Paris and psychological traumas set in a variety of minds and locations.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (Scribner, $15). The Great Gatsby works on every one of the multitude of levels required of superior, serious fiction. And it is absolutely dazzling from its beginning to its famous last line: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (Simon & Schuster, $16). I first read the tale of Capt. Yossarian and his fellow World War II airmen when it was published, in 1961. Many considered Heller’s debut off-the-wall, outlandish—and crazy. But having then just ended my own military service, I found it to be very much on target, wonderful—and most sane.
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (Back Bay, $14). Holden Caulfield was once the most admired growing boy in American literature. I have only one suggestion for those who think of him now as a passing fancy and a cliché: Read The Catcher in the Rye again and see how wrong you are about Salinger’s 1951 novel.
— Jim Lehrer’s new book, Tension City, is a history of televised presidential debates, 11 of which he has moderated.