The Wanderers by Richard Price (Mariner, $16).
My urtext as a writer. The members of an early 1960s Bronx street gang try to navigate their way to adulthood, with mixed results. I read it at 14, and had never before encountered characters so close to the kind of people I saw around me every day. The Wanderers is profane, hilarious, terrifying, heartbreaking, and authentic. In short, all you can ask of a novel.
The Moviegoer by Walker Percy (Vintage, $15).
I never knew prose could be so lush. This is the novel that led me down the rabbit hole into Southern fiction, into shimmering lyrical language. Binx Bolling goes on an existential journey in the movie theaters and genteel parlors of New Orleans, finding love with a deeply unstable woman in the process.
The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley (Vintage, $15).
A road novel, a homage to Kerouac and Raymond Chandler, a multilayered mystery, and a heartfelt meditation on the 1970s, the death of idealism, and the inability of men to truly "see" women. Crumley seemed unaware he was supposed to be writing just another mystery novel. So he wrote what might be the greatest one in the English language (starting with the greatest first sentence in American crime fiction).
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (Dover, $4.50).
There is no actual violence per se, but in Wharton's world faint whispers far in the background can wreak as much destruction as a clenched fist.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver (Vintage, $15).
The seven-page opening story, "Why Don't You Dance?" wholly captures the sum of a man's life and that of two young lovers trying to furnish their first apartment. Each entry in Carver's benchmark for minimalism shows how much you can do with sentences so stripped down they look to be made of nothing but marrow.
The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein (HarperCollins, $18).
No matter when you read it, it remains perfect and profound. I first read it at 7 or 8. Now I read it to my daughters about once a month, and every time I do they look transformed by the journey.
— Dennis Lehane's new novel, Since We Fell, is his first featuring a female protagonist, and she shoots a man in the opening pages.