In the spirit of listing things, here are 20 books that I happen to think are great. I know that listing things can be a frivolous occupation, but I really did put some thought into this list!
American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
The story of a serial killer, or a man who thinks he might be a serial killer, told from the serial killer's point of view. Often cited as an example of "transgressive fiction," this book is still banned in many countries, and remains controversial today. It is, nevertheless, a great book, and is much better than anything else Ellis has written.
Ubik by Philip K. Dick
"Ubik" is derived from "ubique," the Latin word which gives us ubiquitous. The plot is hard to describe, and the ending of the book feels like a hallucination. It's not Dick's weirdest book (I'd give that honor to "Lies, Inc.), but it is probably his best.
The Man in the Iron Mask by Alexandre Dumas
I've read a lot of books set in the 1700s, but this is one of the few that made me feel like I was somehow present during that time period. It's also a great adventure story with some gruesome turns. Based (to some extent) on an actual person.
Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maughaum
Maughaum wrote several great books, and his life has inspired a literature of its own. "Of Human Bondage" is regarded by most critics as his masterpiece, and many of the story elements present in this book are autobiographical. It is the story of a man born with a club foot who joins the medical profession.
Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser
During his lifetime Theodore Dreiser was perhaps more famous for another novel, "An American Tragedy," but in my opinion this novel is far better. It is the story of a girl from the country, the man who loves her, and the consequences of a robbery. It is often cited as an example of "naturalism" in fiction, and there is a realism to the motivation (or lack of motivation) behind the characters that continues to elude many modern authors.
Cities of the Plain by Cormac McCarthy
The last book in McCarthy's Border Trilogy, this book explores a doomed love affair in Mexico. In this novel McCarthy combines the literal elements from "All the Pretty Horses" and the more existential elements from "The Crossing" into a powerful story of human frailty. The climax of this book has stayed with me.
Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne
Verne wrote a lot of great books, but this one is probably my favorite. I will agree that in "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" Verne found both a more interesting protagonist and a more fully realized villain, but something about "Journey to the Center of the Earth" seems more essentially Verne. The album by Rick Wakeman is also pretty good.
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
The Devil visits Soviet Russia with hilarious results. This novel is my favorite Russian novel ever, and it's only too bad that its creation was surrounded by so much personal tragedy for the author. Parts of this book are so over-the-top they had me laughing out loud. An absurd book with a lot to say about human nature.
Jazz by Toni Morrison
I think that Toni Morrison is slightly overrated, but "Jazz" is nonetheless an excellent book. It is the story of a love triangle that develops between three black New Yorkers with deep ties to the South. The more impressionistic passages mimic the style of music that gave the book its name.
Solaris by Stanislaw Lem
With regard to Stanislaw Lem, one of my favorite science fiction writers, I am torn between "Solaris" and "Peace on Earth." "Solaris" is a more serious meditation on how mankind might interact with a truly alien consciousness, while "Peace on Earth" is a more comedic book exploring the theme of paranoia. This book will have you thinking.
The Godmakers by Frank Herbert
"God Emperor of Dune" is perhaps my favorite of Frank Herbert's many books, but this one is great as well. The title describes the story perfectly: the making of a god. Herbert was perhaps at his best when exploring more philosophical themes, and in this book he writes to his own strengths. Very original and thought-provoking.
Foundation by Isaac Asimov
If you were an extraterrestrial visitor wanting to understand Western science fiction, I would heartily recommend "Foundation." More a loosely connected series of short stories than an actual novel, it remains one of the most influential science fiction novels ever written. Asimov certainly had his faults as a writer, but this is a great book.
Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkein
Required reading for anyone into Fantasy, and still one of the best examples of world-building in literature. The "good vs. evil" motif might wear on modern readers, but I think that Tolkein was in keeping with the sagas that inspired his books. The decades of abysmal fantasy writing that followed would only be relieved by George R. R. Martins "Song of Ice and Fire."
The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
This is one of the most tortured books you'll ever read, describing a doomed love affair between the author and another man's wife. Graham Greene wrote a lot of great books, but this one would have to be my favorite.
The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy
Something of a dark horse here, James Ellroy is famous for his crime/noir novels. He has often described himself as "a modern-day Tolstoy," and while I wouldn't agree I do think he's a great writer. "The Black Dahlia" is by far the best of his books, and is somewhat autobiographical in nature. Don't waste your time with the movie.
Life, the Universe and Everything by Douglas Adams
This book is part of the "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" series. All of the books in this series are good, but I think "Life" is the funniest. The plot for this book was originally intended as a six part story for the Doctor Who television show, but the BBC rejected it. Proof that TV executives don't know much about anything.
The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
Probably Faulkner's best known book, and another look at the decaying South. This is also an early example of how Joyce's stream of consciousness technique translated into an American context. This book is often singled out as being "difficult," but it's nothing compared to some of Faulkner's other books.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Despite his reputation, Fitzgerald really didn't write all that much. He left behind five novels - all of which I've read - and "The Great Gatsby" is the only of his books that I would describe as "classic." It is, nevertheless, a great book. Hemingway vs. Fitzgerald? In my opinion, Hemingway never wrote anything half this good.
1984 by George Orwell
Orwell's prophecy about the future of authoritarianism. Several million North Koreans are living this book right now. It's dark, it's political, and it's very human. Even so many decades after its first publication, this book packs quite a punch. Let's just hope that 1984 remains in our past, and not in our future.