One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez (Harper, $16).
"It rained for four years, eleven months, and two days." Thus Márquez matter-of-factly begins a chapter of One Hundred Years of Solitude, throwing open the shutters of our imagination. This simple sentence alerts us that we are in a world we know and yet don't know.
If on a Winter's Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino (Harvest, $12).
"You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel..." is surely one of the great openings in 20th-century fiction. At once declarative, wry, and subversive, Calvino both celebrates and overturns the conventions of the novel. He is like a genius tinkerer building a time machine from junkyard scraps.
Swann's Way by Marcel Proust (Dover, $7).
In this novel's first pages, Proust's narrator hears a distant whistle, prompting him to think of the train crossing the countryside, which leads him to think of a traveler who is looking out the window, having recently exchanged farewells beneath an unfamiliar lamp...and so on. How fluidly Proust moves between concrete impressions and the poetic world of memory and imaginings.
The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol (Vintage, $18).
No one wields the absurd quite like Gogol. In settings all too familiar — filled with bourgeois officialdom and petty aspirations — Gogol inserts minor forces of chaos that soon run rampant over both vanities and common sense, making us laugh even as we grow increasingly uncertain of the ground we're standing on.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera (Harper, $18).
"The idea of eternal return is a mysterious one, and Nietzsche has often perplexed other philosophers with it..." When I first read these opening lines, I was exhilarated by the directness with which Kundera relates ideas to the reader. He simply addresses us, explaining the grander notions that the consideration of his characters has stirred in him.
100 Artists' Manifestos edited by Alex Danchev (Penguin UK, $16).
I've always loved reading manifestos. Collectively, they represent a triumph of style. With their sharp observations, sweeping assertions, and tireless self-assurance, they march us toward some inescapable (yet elusive) conclusion, propelling us with their internal urgency toward something new.