New and Collected Poems by Richard Wilbur (Harvest, $17). The former poet laureate writes compact gems of poems. I continually return to his work as a reminder to pay attention to the musical quality of words and, most important, to be economical in my writing.

An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser (Signet, $10). This book tells the story of an ambitious young man’s rise and his downfall at the hands of his nature and fate. The prose can be ponderous. But you stay riveted from the very beginning, and by the time you reach the harrowing final pages, you know the young protagonist as well as you know your best friend.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
by John le Carré (Scribner, $15). This twisty Cold War novel keeps you on the edge of your seat, thanks to a race-car plot, the muscular but deft prose, and characters that are definitely not from central casting.

Billiards at Half Past Nine by Heinrich Böll. (Marion Boyars, $19) Set in post–World War II Germany, this novel is both understated and wrenching. In addition to recounting a tale of two lives torn apart by the particular madness of Nazism, it stands as a masterpiece of character. I read it many years ago, but still recall vividly how each of the nearly dozen characters comes to life.

Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow (Random House, $15) I love novels that blend fiction and real life. Set at the beginning of the last century, Ragtime juggles several plots, featuring fictional and real characters, all of whom weave together contrapuntally and in the end come together in scenes that range from heartfelt to tragic.

From Russia With Love
by Ian Fleming (Penguin, $14). I read this novel when I was 8 or 9, and I still consider it Fleming’s best. Twisting plots, luscious detail, Cold War cynicism—and some pretty daring techniques for a popular fiction author, including an extremely delayed entry of the main character and a stunning final paragraph that made us despair that the author might be retiring from the writing world altogether.