Brighton Rock by Graham Greene
Dark, spare, pessimistic, shocking, a novel that says everything about adolescent violence and angst, and about the limits of faith and love -- still an overwhelming reading experience.
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
Forget the "Masterpiece Theatre" version, however good it was; the novel is the perfect distillation of English class-consciousness and storytelling, deeply romantic, a love story anchored in the profligate 1930s and highlighted by the experience of World War II, filled with Waugh's particular blend of wit, savagery and pure English rage. It is a major work of art, far beyond the fashionable gloss that has come to surround it.
After Many a Summer Dies the Swan by Aldous Huxley
California, the quest for eternal youth and sex, William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies seeking nirvana via monkey-gland shots: This is a biting, witty, nasty book about L.A. and America that makes "The Day of the Locust" and "The Loved One" seem tame, and by a supremely intelligent writer. In this age of glamour and celebrity worship, this book is necessary reading, an antidote to the belief that youth, sexual vitality, beauty and happiness are all that matter, the supreme anti-Calvin Klein ad manifesto, and hilarious -- albeit disturbing -- reading.
The Last Picture Show by Larry McMurtry
So you saw the movie, with Cybill Shepherd, so what? The book is much better, everything there is to say about sexuality, class and the pain of growing up in a small west-Texas town in the 1950s. It's told by a master storyteller, the Flaubert of the Plains when it comes to creating believable female characters, and still a book that you just can't put down until you reach the last page.
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
I can't help it. I have read it umpteen times. Gandalf the Wizard, the hobbits, the journey into a wonderful imaginary world that somehow parallels our own, the sense of wonder and mystery -- this is English fantasy at its richest and best, a far deeper read than "The Sword and the Stone," and truly a book to be read slowly, patiently, savoring every page. In the 1960s and '70s kids adopted Tolkien, but he's better than that. Hardly anybody has ever created such a rich world and made it so believable, and few writers have ever sustained a cliffhanger adventure story for so many pages. I cry every time I read the end. What more can you ask from fiction?