Mark Bowden, a national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, is the author of Black Hawk Down and Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the Worlds Greatest Outlaw.
Tom Jones by Henry Fielding (Oxford, $8). One of the earliest novels, and still one of the funniest ever written. It lampoons pretense in all its forms, celebrates youth, sex, and robust living, and demonstrates that the one irreplaceable aspect of the written word is voice.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (Penguin, $6). The great American novel. It is hilarious, sad, moving, and profound. It deals at heart with the issue of race, illustrating the absurdity of racism, which is why it is so sad and terribly ironic that some people would ban it on racist grounds. By capturing colloquial American English in its storytelling, it changed the way people have written novels ever since.
The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen (Penguin, $15). The diary of a man on an expedition into the Himalayan Mountains soon after the death of his ex-wife. It is a spiritual and emotional journey, and a brilliant travelogue, written in language as clear and original as the high mountain air.
The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe (Bantam, $15). Really an extended essay or argument, the wittiest anthropological essay every written. It reveals the early space race as a modern-day re-enactment of the ancient tribal ritual of Single Combat, and does so in some of the cleverest, funniest, smartest prose ever written.
American Pastoral by Philip Roth (Vintage, $15). A sweeping, moving, powerful story about a family in Newark, NJ, but also a story about America at mid-century, about the way each generation betrays the one that came before. No one writes with such knowledge and affection about the American experience as Roth.
Love in the Time of Cholera