The Thing Itself by Richard Todd. (Riverhead, $16). Wit is a word that a number of contemporary artists inaccurately apply to their own work. For an example of the real thing, I suggest Richard Todd’s recent The Thing Itself, a haunting and often very funny meditation on authenticity.
The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway (Scribner, $22). You’ll note that this is a temporally eclectic list, which includes some books I read recently and admired a great deal and some books I read long ago and reread from time to time. When I discovered Hemingway at some point during my first year at college, I began ardently trying to imitate him. I don’t reread his novels now, for fear of finding they have aged as gracelessly as I have. I do reread his short stories, though, with pleasure and admiration, and also with nostalgia. Even today, I believe, aspiring writers could find much worse places to begin.
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (Dover, $5). I’ve never read another novel like it. A wild and haunting book. I like to open it at random and read for a while. But, I believe, most people under 40 ought to wait before attempting it.
The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (Back Bay, $22). Not every poem that Emily Dickinson wrote is wonderful. Some aren’t
even good. But there are great poems everywhere in this volume, some of the greatest in American literature.
Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov (Vintage, $15). To me, this is Nabokov at his very best. Among Pale Fire’s astonishing contents is a long and rather lovely poem written by a principal character: a poem written by Nabokov, of course, but not by Nabokov, as it were. This is one of the strangest and funniest novels I know.
I Sailed With Magellan by Stuart Dybek (Picador, $15). Stuart Dybek is one of America’s best living short-story writers, an original. His stories, many of them set in his native Chicago, have a haunting, myth-like quality, but they escape easy classification. I Sailed With Magellan is his third volume of stories. In some ways, it’s his best.