The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway (Scribner, $12). Written in the simplest language and with not a wasted word, this sublime book moved me to an almost unbearable degree when I first read it. The old man, his friend the boy, his fish (with whom he has such a complex relationship), and the great sea — I care about them all, and they are indelibly etched into my brain.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (Dover, $5). People have given different interpretations as to what this timeless classic is about. To me it is not about love thwarted by social conventions, as some seem to think; it's about all feverish and unreserved loves, which come with a destructive and futile seed buried in them. We all lose our head once, but Anna lost hers completely.

Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote (Vintage, $14). The story of Holly Golightly is well-known enough, as we have probably all seen the Audrey Hepburn film many times. Yet the book simply dazzles with word power — like all of Capote's classics. Norman Mailer said it all when he called Capote "the most perfect writer of my generation."

Death in Venice by Thomas Mann (Dover, $2.50). A writer visits Venice in the hope of overcoming a creative block and becomes entranced by a beautiful boy. Mann's novella is completely satisfying, in a sensual as well as an intellectual way. I tore through it in one sitting, and only paused to say to myself, "This is why we read!"

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (Vintage, $16). Martin Amis remarked that Nabokov "writes with incomparable penetration about delusion and coercion, about cruelty and lies." I would add that he was an unrivaled master of desire.

A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov (Penguin, $15). An unforgettable novel recounting the adventures of a melancholic Russian army officer during his travels in the Caucasus. This translation is by Natasha Randall, but there is also a translation by Nabokov. I have read this book several times — once in Chinese — and the delight its magic inspires is not lost in translation.

Jung Chang is the best-selling author of Mao: The Unknown Story and the memoir Wild Swans. Her latest book, Empress Dowager Cixi, spotlights the onetime concubine who served as the unofficial ruler of China from 1861 to 1908.