If you're just tuning in, Part One is here.
Plays: 5, Tom Stoppard – "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" is the one to geek out on in high school, but "The Real Thing" explains love, and "Arcadia" explains everything else.
When the Sacred Ginmill Closes, Lawrence Block – The best title for the best book in the best series of American detective fiction.
Writing Home, Alan Bennett – Any of his collections, really. And The History Boys: "Cloisters, ancient libraries...I was confusing learning with the smell of cold stone. If I had gone to Oxford I'd probably never have worked out the difference."
Novels and Stories, Shirley Jackson – Every single survey class of AmLit should cover Shirley Jackson, it's a crime that most people only know her from "The Lottery." GENIUS.
Black Dogs, Ian McEwan – Not only is McEwan one of the greatest living writers, he is never, ever the same. It's impossible that The Cement Garden is by the same person who wrote The Child in Time who wrote On Chesil Beach. Impossible. Black Dogs is a book to read every year, to see if it means the same thing to you later. I tend to rabbit on about McEwan, but it's because, well, Zadie Smith once said that every author has a perfect reader, a reader who appreciates every word, who sort of hums on the same vibration. She felt that way about E.M. Forster. I feel that way about McEwan, if there's a way to say it without sounding like a total juicebox. There probably isn't.
Sabbath's Theater, Philip Roth – Not everyone loves Roth, but everyone should love Mickey Sabbath. It's grown-up Roth, but he's still disgusting in that particularly wonderful way. I had a really embarrassing moment with this book in a seminar, where I kind of drifted off, and was asked what a particular allusion was to, and blanked and said Lewis Carroll, when it was actually extremely obviously King Lear, and to this day I cringe over it.
Running Wild, J.G. Ballard – All the Ballard! What IS this novella, it is amazing. Reading Ballard is like reading a narrative of the dreams you have and only know about when you're woken unexpectedly at three am because your dog needs to go out. I don't know how he did that. And the marvelous thing about Running Wild is that it's a mystery, and it's completely obvious to you what's happened from page one, but the investigators are blind to it.
Wicked Beyond Belief: The Hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper, Michael Bilton – It was a real struggle to only have one book about a serial killer on this list, so, um, counting the Mikal Gilmore, now there are two. To be fair, this is really about almost blinding police incompetence. Having grown up on English mysteries, I always assumed that life would eventually make me Detective Chief Inspector Cliffe of the Thames Valley CID. And this shit would never have gone down on my watch. Assuming they would have loaned me out to Yorkshire. Which they would have.
Happy All the Time, Laurie Colwin – There are basically no happy books about love that aren't complete dreck. Except for this. But then, of course, she died young, so the universe screws you either way, right?
Flow My Tears the Policeman Said, Philip K. Dick – In a direct parallel to the illusion of sexual choice, you either like Dick or you don't. In a less-accurate parallel, if you like Dick, any Dick will do. (Ugh, that happened.) Really, though, this is maybe the best. You can't go wrong with The Man in the High Castle, of course. But sometimes guys read that one in high school and become unbearable. It's a thing.
To Your Scattered Bodies Go, Philip Jose Farmer – I had a friend who said this ridiculously cheeseball thing about how we each get the afterlife we believe in (when it's obviously OBLIVION AND THE VOID for all), but I have a secret hope that I'm wrong and it's Riverworld for me.
The Neverending Story, Michael Ende – It's nice to end with the other best book, which this most certainly is. I was twenty-five before I accepted, on some level, that The Neverending Story might not be true. And if Bastian in the library with the blankets and the sandwich isn't you, even a little, then you are incomprehensible to me.
Go forth and read!