Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut (Dell, $15). Maybe the funniest doomsday thriller ever written. The idea for ice-nine, the dangerous substance at the center of Cat’s Cradle, came from Irving Langmuir, the Nobel Prize–winning chemist, who offered it up to H.G. Wells. Vonnegut dusted the concept off and turned it into a classic that defies categorization, a mashup of science fiction and satirical social commentary.
Marathon Man by William Goldman (Ballantine, $15). When I was in the 9th grade, my English teacher slipped me this classic about runner Babe Levy and his mysterious brother, Doc, setting off a lifetime of thriller reading. Goldman's versatility is amazing — how do you write Marathon Man and The Princess Bride in the space of a year?
Tropic of Night by Michael Gruber (HarperCollins, $8). This "debut" novel by Michael Gruber, a biologist and onetime speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, blew me away. Gruber is reputed to have ghostwritten the first 15 Robert Tanenbaum legal thrillers. Regardless, he's simply the smartest thriller writer I know.
A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson (Crown, $17). How does a writer of humorous travelogues pen one of the best books about science ever written? Answer: He focuses on the antics of the scientists as much as their science. The stories of J.B.S. Haldane and his exploding dental fillings are unforgettable. Trust me: Read this book.
For the Time Being by Annie Dillard (Vintage, $14). A Pulitzer Prize winner for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Dillard writes here with her characteristic mix of wide-eyed wonder and horror, covering topics from infant malformation to Father Teilhard de Chardin's early-20th-century journeys to find the bones of pre-Neanderthal humans. A heartbreaking and beautiful book.
Infinite in All Directions by Freeman Dyson (Harper, $15). Dyson is one of the primary architects of modern quantum-field theory but also a fantastic popularizer of science and a brilliant gadfly on any subject. I'll read anything by him. So should you.