The Rainbow by D.H. Lawrence (Signet, $6). This is a book all women should read, to find out how we became what we are in the modern world; ditto all English people. Lawrence is the great analyst of transformation and change and self-realization, and this novel — about three generations of an English family — leaves readers with the skills to continue that analysis in their own living of life.
The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann (Vintage, $19). The Magic Mountain is something of a writer's bible, and the general reader is often discouraged by its novel-as-mountain form from scaling it to the top. My advice is to take it slowly and keep going. Mann's epic account of how the processes of sensitivity undermine the diktats of social reality can be read and understood at the most personal level.
The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $18). To my mind, Porter is the most unjustly neglected of 20th-century writers: In the U.K., she is barely known, and this Pulitzer Prize–winning collection of her short fiction has fallen out of print. The novella-length stories in Pale Horse, Pale Rider and The Leaning Tower are among the great modern works, and Porter's prose style is a master class in empathy and accuracy.
Raymond Carver: Collected Stories (Library of America, $40). Carver has suffered a slip in his former standing as the darling of creative-writing courses, but his writing remains the best modern example of the technical and disciplinary basis of literary art. I often go back to Carver to remind myself what the rules are.
The Plague by Albert Camus (Vintage, $15). Generation after generation, Camus' novel about a modern city afflicted by the medieval scourge of bubonic plague retains its relevance and freshness as a social metaphor, not to mention as a compelling narrative.
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $14). Woolf's groundbreaking novel is still one of the best available accounts of self-mythologizing middle-class family life and its oppressive construction of male and female identity.
—Rachel Cusk is the author of three memoirs and eight novels, including Outline, named by many publications as one of the best books of 2015. That novel, about a writer teaching in Athens and the stories she collects there, is now out in paperback.