Erik Larson is the best-selling author of The Devil in the White City and In the Garden of Beasts. His latest nonfiction thriller, The Splendid and the Vile, offers a close-up view of Winston Churchill's first year as Great Britain's prime minister.

The Guns of August by Barbara W. Tuchman (1962).

Tuchman was a narrative magician: Every time I read this book, about the start of the First World War, I find myself thinking, surely these people aren't so idiotic as to let this war occur. It also happens to have the most beautifully written first paragraph in the history of nonfiction.

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett (1930).

No mere detective story, this is a fine novel populated by characters as charismatic as any you'd hope to find anywhere. What keeps bringing me back, however, is Hammett's lean prose, so deft that you always know what Spade is thinking without ever directly being told.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (1869).

I've read War and Peace three times and will likely read it at least once more. Each reading came at a different phase of my life — first in college; second, as a young adult wondering why I was on this planet; and third, as a new father, suddenly acutely aware of the calamities of life crowding the mists outside my window. Each time, I felt I'd lived another life and was infinitely richer for it.

The Shipping News by Annie Proulx (1993).

The perfect novel: atmospheric to the point where I practically have to take a shower to rinse off the brine cast up by waves crashing against the Newfoundland cliffs as our hero, Quoyle, lumbers his way from despair toward salvation.

Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser (1996).

When­ever I'm about to start a book, I turn to the first paragraph of Millhauser's novel for inspiration. He extends a sure hand, inviting the reader to enter the world of his hero, a creature of the late 19th century, when hubris bred great feats, and great tragedies.

Heartburn by Nora Ephron (1983).

Confession: I've always been in love with Nora Ephron, though I never got to meet her. Her vinaigrette recipe, revealed in the book, is on my computer desktop, next to her photograph. My wife knows all this and does not mind. Each time I read Heartburn, I feel as though Ephron and I are having a lunchtime conversation in some dishy New York restaurant, as city cabs bleat on the street outside.

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