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Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace (Back Bay, $15). The essay is my favorite form, and this collection, which features a masterly piece on dictionaries as well as a report on a porn convention in Las Vegas, is profoundly funny, obsessively detailed, and full of quirky wisdom. The vote on Wallace as a novelist is still out, I think, but I’m betting he will achieve immortality as one of the great reflective writers of our times.

Arthur & George by Julian Barnes (Vintage, $16). Based on the true story of how Sir Arthur Conan Doyle rescued an Anglo-Indian barrister falsely accused of a heinous crime, Barnes’s novel is a study both of marvelously contrasting characters and of turn-of-the-century English society. It’s a massive book that reads with the addictive quickness of a detective story, which it partly is. Barnes is one of our deftest and most appealing writers.

New Grub Street by George Gissing (Pomona, $12). Gissing was among the most prolific of the minor Victorians, and this is his masterpiece: A richly detailed account of the rise of the modern literary world—at times sentimental and romantic, yet also hard-nosed and full of characters both slippery and idealistic. More than a century later, any writer will recognize himself, his peers—and his agents—among those struggling to survive as a new, modernist, anti-genteel world is born.

Henry James by Leon Edel (out of print). This one-volume distillation of Edel’s massive five-volume biography is a great stand-alone work. I’m not myself a Jamesian. But Edel, with his conversational style and lightly worn erudition, enlists one’s sympathy for this seemingly frosty figure in a way that helps us see a sedentary heroism in his great career.

What Makes Sammy Run? by Budd Schulberg (Vintage, $16). I guess a movie guy must include a Hollywood novel among his choices. It’s hard to do, since most of them are so awful. But Schulberg’s book, the rags-to-riches tale of screenwriter Sammy Glick, remains an unpretentious, persistent delight. It’s hard for a novel to be both lovable and mordant, but Schulberg’s manages with authentic panache.

Richard Schickel's new book — his 37th — is Conversations With Scorsese. A film critic for more than 45 years, Schickel is also the director-writer-producer of many TV documentaries, mostly about the movies