The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann (Vintage, $19). The beginning of Mann's 1924 novel has one of my favorite lines of all time: "Only thoroughness can be truly entertaining." This book also made me excited about playing with time. The first chapter covers an hour, the second chapter covers around a day, and as you keep going time keeps speeding up at an alarming rate. By the end of the book, years are flying by.
The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James (Dover, $10). This book consists of a series of lectures delivered in 1901 and '02. James skips over all the absurd "Is there a God or isn't there?" debates — there's no attempt to legitimize or delegitimize religious belief — and just delves into conversion narratives and saintliness and mysticism and how we think/feel/experience what he calls "the reality of the unseen."
Watt by Samuel Beckett (Grove, $15). The funniest and saddest novel ever written. The passage in which Watt contemplates the word "pot" is one of my favorite in world literature.
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $14). Woolf's sentences are so beautiful in this novel that they made me give up writing prose forever. She can articulate a train of thought and the poetry of thinking better than anyone else.
The Steppe and Other Stories by Anton Chekhov (Oxford, $14). The Steppe, a novella, may be the longest story Chekhov wrote. It follows a little boy who's on a wagon journey across southern Russia with a priest and a merchant. It's my favorite story written from a child's perspective, and it takes a weird detour when the characters visit a bunch of eccentric Jewish innkeepers. My ancestors were Jewish innkeepers in southern Russia. I like to think that they bumped into the young Chekhov at some point and weirded him out.
The Poems of Emily Dickinson (Belknap, $24.50). I think she's still the best American poet. Just mind-blowing. And a fellow lady writer from Amherst, Massachusetts.
—Playwright Annie Baker has won both an Obie Award and a Pulitzer Prize.