James Atlas is a founding editor of the Lipper/Viking Penguin Lives Series, a longtime contributor to The New Yorker, and author of Bellow: A Biography (Random House, $35).
Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert (Viking Press, $8). Flaubert’s greatest novel, which rehearses the familiar story (also beautifully told in Balzac’s Lost Illusions) of an ambitious young man from the provinces who aspires to greater things, and journeys to the big city to make his way.
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (Modern Library, $10). This novel can be read over and over as you grow older, with an ever-deepening insight into its universal truths. The famous “mushroom-picking scene” is a poignant depiction of the randomness of fate that’s lost on the young, who persist in the illusion that we’re the masters of our own fate.
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Father and Son by Edmund Gosse (Penguin USA, $12). A touching and bittersweet portrait of the conflict, played out in every generation, between fathers and sons, who struggle to negotiate between the fathers’ impulse to dominate their sons and the sons’ need for independence.
Autobiography of Edward Gibbon by Edward Gibbon (out-of-print). Gibbon’s meditation on his monumental achievement not only illuminates the mind and sensibility that produced The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire; it’s a masterpiece of life-summation (to coin a word), the act of evaluating one’s achievements with humility and clarity in a genre that all too often becomes an exercise in self-aggrandizement.
Stop-Time by Frank Conroy (Penguin USA, $13). The best book ever written on what it’s like to be a boy growing up in postwar America. Conroy rides around on his bicycle, loiters on the fire escape of his apartment, dawdles idly through hot summer days; he devotes a whole chapter to the tricks of a yo-yo master encountered during a Florida sojourn. It doesn’t matter; the experience of adolescence has never been more intensely rendered.
Herzog by Saul Bellow (Penguin USA, $14). The master’s masterpiece, his most perfectly composed book. Every sentence shines; there is no real plot, as usual with Bellow, but no plot is required. Moses Herzog—academic, intellectual, victim of a marital disaster, great-souled ordinary man—is coming apart, a disintegration that leads him, in the end, to wisdom.
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