I love books. I love a bunch of people who write books. I even write books myself, but you could probably get by on just these five without missing out on too much.
They’re all personal favorites, but they also contain a solid swath of critical thinking and philosophical introspection that should serve you well while doing all the other stuff in your life that isn’t reading a book — including talking cosmology with hat-doffing dudes on bar patios.
Cradle to grave in less than 1200 pages.
Momo by Michael Ende
Momo is very much a book for kids: a shoeless girl who lives in an abandoned amphitheater uncovers the sinister secrets of a gang of gray bankers who descend on a picturesque village with the promise of saving everyone a little much-needed time.
I’m sure it’s more on the nose now than it was in ’73, but it makes a solid argument for putting down your fucking phone.
Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino
Marco Polo and Kublai Khan lounge about in an opulent garden, shooting the shit about the ever-expanding Mongolian empire.
It’s a simple, dreamlike framework that Calvino exploits to explore every facet of human tendency with lightness and wit.
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
This is the thickest pick on my list, but it’s also got the most action, plot, and characters.
It’s a beautiful mess of the highest order: a paean to the magnum opus, a takedown of Stalinism and elitism, a talking cat, all kinds of beheadings, and a tender love story that flips back and forth between Moscow in the ’30s and Jerusalem around A.D. 33.
And it’s so damn spry. It’s difficult to believe it was written under the conditions it lampoons.
The Mysterious Stranger by Mark Twain
I read this one shortly after Master, and it’s sort of amazing how the two intertwine. It’s fairly dark, but Jeezum Crow is it good.
Some kids meet Satan while futzing around in the woods. It goes pretty well for a while.
On one hand, it’ll disabuse you of the notion of personal or human significance. On the other, it’ll reaffirm to you Twain’s position around the top of the pantheon of American writers.
The Book of Sand by Jorge Luis Borges
This isn’t the best Borges collection. It’s stuck with me, however, in a way that his earlier work hasn’t. It’s laced with his signature intellectual exercises, but there’s something tired and personal to it that gives it the weight of a manual for aging and dying with grace.
It’s worth reading for the first story alone, “The Other,” a park bench scene featuring Borges at the end of his life chatting up a younger version of himself.
The bonus of reading Borges is you always walk away feeling more well-read than you actually are.