Somebody in Boots by Nelson Algren (out of print). My favorite Depression-era novel, this is Nelson Algren’s debut, published when he was 26 years old (after doing a short stretch in jail for the perfect writer’s crime—stealing a typewriter). Raw and sad and written from the front lines of an economic and cultural disaster.

Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon (Penguin, $19). All the books in this list are books I remember not wanting to put down when I read them—which can have something to do with who I was at the time as well as what’s in the book. Still, Gravity’s Rainbow is the best “big” book I know. Pynchon deals with all the major themes of the 20th century with wit and insight and proves once and for all that paranoia is not an illusion—they are trying to kill us.

Havana World Series by José Latour (Grove, $12). The noir tradition goes Latin. In a classic of the genre, Latour mixes American and Cuban tipos duros (tough guys) in just-pre-Fidel Havana. The rare author who can write terrific stuff in two languages.

Oswald’s Tale by Norman Mailer (Random House, $16). Mailer’s great gifts of style are put in service of deciphering the man at the center of the Kennedy assassination. The reader’s preconceptions fall away as Mailer’s do—which happens when a good writer honestly tries to get into various people’s heads and share with us what he’s discovered there.

The Hawk Is Dying by Harry Crews (out of print). A good place to enter the extreme and very funny world of Harry Crews. This 1973 novel is about a Southern man with an obsession, beautiful and grotesque, that might save his life.

Christ in Concrete by Pietro di Donato (Signet, $8). Di Donato’s autobiographical immigrant novel became one of the catalysts for the Italian neorealist film movement. A book that is totally alive. Read it with Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep, Paul Laurence Dunbar’s The Sport of the Gods, and Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and you’ll have the urban experience of the early 20th century pretty much covered.

Filmmaker John Sayles is the author of two short-story collections and three novels, including Union Dues, a National Book Award nominee. His fourth, the mammoth A Moment in the Sun, will be published in May by McSweeney’s