Historian Joseph J. Ellis is the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Founding Brothers and His Excellency, George Washington. His most recent best-seller, American Creation, has just come out in paperback.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (Penguin, $4). My favorite American novel, written in a style that strikes me as lyrical and succinct, which are two of my goals as a writer.

The American Political Tradition by Richard Hofstadter (Vintage, $18). An elegant and panoramic look at the competing values central to American political culture, done by a master historian. The book’s biographies of Lincoln, Wilson, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt are little gems that still shine.  

Dispatches by Michael Herr (Vintage, $13). The best book about the Vietnam War, which shaped my generation. It dips you into the overlapping lunacies of war as experienced by ordinary soldiers, and recovers the psychedelic mentality of the ’60s like no other book I know.  

White Over Black by Winthrop D. Jordan (Univ. of North Carolina, $32.50). A path-breaking study of the origins of American racism, written in a style that transcends most scholarly prose. Jordan shows how deep the roots of racism go in American history and what any attempt to eradicate it is up against.  

The Face of Battle by John Keegan (Penguin, $16). Literally drops you into three historic battles and recovers the palpable sense of being there like no other book about war. Keegan also leaves the reader with a provocative question: Are the venerable notions of honor and valor capable of surviving on the modern battlefield?

The Education of Henry Adams
by Henry B. Adams (Dover, $9). The greatest memoir in American letters, written by the most ironic temperament in American history. And triple irony: This is a story about failure rather than success, a theme that turns the traditional American story on its head.