In no particular order …
1. The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman. Because it’s a Tuchman book, it’s beautifully written and flawlessly narrated. But the big take-home message for me was how quickly the best-laid plans of the various combatants of 1914 came to grief, and how bereft they were of a plan B once “mobile warfare” had solidified. A brilliant case study in unintended consequences.
2. The Nichomechean Ethics by Aristotle. Aristotle’s supple wisdom still rings true today as he analyses the human virtues as way of good living.
3. In Search of Lost Time by Proust. Taught me about love, and obsession, and human changeability, and the Dreyfus affair. Also taught me that ploughing through a difficult multi-volume novel for months can be intensely rewarding.
4. Landscape and Memory by Simon Schama. The best book about art history I have ever read, by one of the grandest contemporary historians.
5. The Space of Literature by Maurice Blanchot. Perhaps one of the most intense works of literary criticism of all time.
6. Illuminations by Walter Benjamin. Still the best introductory collection.
8. Essays by Montaigne. And for the defence of humanism, we have Montaigne, whose literary generosity has perhaps never been surpassed.
9. The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil. Still perhaps my favourite ever comic novel. Contains multitudes.
10. The Age of Extremes by Eric Hobsbawm. Glory in the broad-brush sweep of contemporary history, marvel at the quality of his judgment, wonder at the scope of his compass.