Underworld by Don DeLillo (Scribner, $20).
Few writers have a genuine sense of social sweep — of how to manage a large vision of society sentence by sentence — but DeLillo's masterpiece makes you believe that a novelist can wield magical powers. All of his books depict the individual struggling with gigantic forces, and I return to him often. His talent is of the kind that drives other writers forward.
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (Mariner, $14).
"Nobody is simply one thing," Woolf wrote, and Mrs. Dalloway is filled with a beautiful sense of its characters' multiplicity. Everybody can be otherwise, but that doesn't stop their being distinctive and vivid.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark (Harper Perennial, $14).
Not all novels can withstand the weight of their author's own story, but this book possesses both universality and the unmistakable stamp of Spark's school days in 1930s Edinburgh. Her slightly evil way of tightening the net around Jean Brodie's "girls" feels like a brilliant displacement of her own girlish anxieties, yet you read the novel for the delightfully nostalgic feeling of wondering what people might make of themselves.
The Eitingons by Mary-Kay Wilmers (Verso, $25).
This investigative memoir feels like a book written from the center of Wilmers' nervous system. The book tells the story of the author's colorful Russian relatives. But mainly there is Wilmers, who becomes the most interesting person she can't pin down.
Metamorphosis and Other Stories by Franz Kafka (Penguin, $16).
Waking up as someone else is one thing, but as a giant bug? The title story, like Peter Pan or "Jekyll and Hyde," just seems too mythic and perhaps too psychologically astute to have been written by one person.
In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin (Penguin, $17).
Self-invention can be a matter of style — high style in some cases — or it can merely gloss over the truth. Both possibilities feel present in Chatwin's work. Yet In Patagonia consorts with the outside world in a way that adds something new to our conception of a modern person. Nobody is one thing; no place is, either.
— Novelist and journalist Andrew O'Hagan is the author of eight books, including Our Fathers, a Booker Prize finalist. His new work, The Secret Life, gathers "three true stories of the digital age," including how he almost partnered with Julian Assange.