Best books … chosen by Alan Lightman

Physicist Alan Lightman is the best-selling author of the novels Einstein’s Dreams and The Diagnosis. His latest novel, Ghost, has just been published by Pantheon.

The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati (Godine, $18) This is a mysterious, short novel, vaguely set at the frontier of some European land, out of time and space. We are taken to an outpost charged with guarding a country against attack, but the attack never seems to come, after years and years of waiting, and slowly we understand the futility and absurdity of war.

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (Wordsworth, $5) Mrs. Dalloway is, of course, a great classic of English literature. I love this book because of the way Woolf is able to re-create the sensation of being alive, the sensation of consciousness when one is bombarded simultaneously with sensations from the outer world and, at the same time, the thoughts in one’s inner world.

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino (Harvest, $14) This is a wondrous journey of the imagination in which a fictionalized Marco Polo surveys and describes the various cities in the empire of Genghis Khan. The writing is gorgeous. The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald (Mariner, $13) Penelope Fitzgerald’s 1997 novel is a gem of a little book, fictionalizing the life and burning romance of the German poet Novalis. In sparkling prose, Fitzgerald vividly re-creates the daily life of late-18thcentury Germany.

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (Penguin, $13). Originally banned from publication in Russia, The Master and Margarita satirizes the bureaucracy and mindset of mid- 20th-century Russia. The devil and his hilarious sidemen visit Moscow and wreak havoc there. Bulgakov’s devil has equal doses of good and evil.

Letters to a Young Poet by Ranier Maria Rilke (Dover, $6). Contains letters Rilke wrote to an aspiring young poet in the early 20th century. Beautifully written, even in translation, these letters form an ode to the creative life— most importantly, the importance of solitude and the need to love “the questions themselves, like locked rooms.”