Family Happiness by Leo Tolstoy (Dover, $5).
Humanity's greatest author, famous for his symphonic War and Peace, also composed some of fiction's most practical chamber pieces. Family Happiness, which traces the blooming of young passion through giddy marriage to mature togetherness, is the story I most recommend to 20-somethings. It illuminates what's really happening when that first spark of infatuation begins to wane. Or, in Tolstoy's words, "Each time of life has its own kind of love."
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou (Random House, $17).
There's a reason Angelou's memoir of childhood rape is assigned in schools where books about reality aren't banned: The extraordinary will, life, and voice she forged in the wake of her trauma provide an example against which we all should dare to measure ourselves.
Black Boy by Richard Wright (Harper Perennial, $19).
Wright's blunt, concrete prose describing his impoverished Mississippi boyhood, his struggle to find honest work, and his tireless efforts at a self-education that might satisfy his anguished and angry urge to simply understand "Why do white people hate me?" reduced me to shameful tears. Required reading for every American.
In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust (Modern Library, $100).
One of my undergraduate painting teachers (not a pretentious one) told me that if he could live forever, this is the book he'd most want to reread. I was surprised by its humor, frankness, and clarity, to say nothing of its exquisite 3-D rendering of the protagonist's life, as seen through the closed eyes of memory.
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (Bantam, $6).
What we assume is a vivid, rousing tale of whaling is really the first (fictional) fan fiction, an unreliable rookie narrator's seminal Big Experience magnified into an overwrought hash of hero worship and insecure fact spattering. It's also a vivid, rousing tale of whaling.
Ulysses by James Joyce (Vintage, $17).
Joyce implants memory pictures in the reader's mind with poetry, prose, and phonemes as part of the most finely tuned portrait of human consciousness yet wrought. Reading it is either like having brain surgery while awake or completely inhabiting someone else's life.
— Chris Ware, one of the most acclaimed graphic novelists of our time, is the author of Building Stories and Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth. His new book, Monograph, offers a densely illustrated look back at his life and career.