The top 10, in order:
1. A Promise that Mankind Might… by Saul Bellow (from “The Old System”)
Although from a minor short story, this is my favorite piece of fiction writing. It’s a profound evocation of the contradictory nature of human emotion, especially as it relates to mortality. I suggest reading it aloud to yourself, taking note of Bellow’s deliberate punctuation.
2. Why Do We Care about Singers? by Salman Rushdie (from The Ground Beneath Her Feet)
“Our lives are not what we deserve; they are, let us agree, in many painful ways deficient. Song turns them into something else.” Man. I wish I’d written that.
3. The Simplest Pattern by W. Somerset Maugham (from Of Human Bondage)
Maugham’s writing is classic, stylish, and full of applicable wisdom worth absorbing.
4. Rule Number One: The Most Important Thing about You Is Your Date of Birth by Martin Amis (from The Pregnant Widow)
A shattering opening stave, especially as it introduces a book about nostalgia. Amis’s reading of this passage was rattling around my head as I wrote ‘College, Life’.
5. Does 2+2=4? by Albert Camus (from The Plague)
It sheds harsh light on the evil of the fascistic mindset: the belief that you know everything, and are therefore allowed anything.
6. A Newspaper Is a Business Out to Make Money by Raymond Chandler (from The Long Goodbye)
During a year (an election year, no less) in which I felt some of my vestigial idealism metamorphose into common sense politics, this no-nonsense take on the media struck a powerful chord. (It’s also a legitimate refutation and partial affirmation of the Chomskyian thesis in Manufacturing Consent.)
7. The Two Main Traits of Terrorists by Joseph Conrad (from The Secret Agent)
In a prophetic paragraph from a century ago, Conrad encapsulated the worldview of the modern terrorist.
8. The Kind of Town that Made You Feel Like Humphrey Bogart by Hunter S. Thompson (from The Rum Diary)
Thompson isn’t my favorite author. That said, this excerpt is one of the — excuse my language — most badass pieces of fiction writing ever produced. (It also captures something of the listless, restless tenor of youthful ambition.)
9. True Stories by Paul Auster (from his Collected Prose)
It’s not technically fiction, but Auster is a novelist, and this particular one-paragraph tale is a paradigm of what simple, true storytelling — not style, not flash — can do.
10. The Cost of Immortality by Alan Lightman (from Einstein’s Dreams)
“Suppose people live forever…” From that premise, Lightman paints a vivid picture of what a fictional civilization would metastasize into.
Honorable mentions: The Hangover by Kingsley Amis (from Lucky Jim); We Are Not Provided with Wisdom by Marcel Proust (from In Search of Lost Time); Go Right Ahead and Scold Him by Kurt Vonnegut (from Cat’s Cradle); That Head-on-Heart Stuff/ Memory’s a Funny Thing by Martin Amis (from Money); In the Afterlife, You Relieve All Your Experiences by David Eagleman (from Sum)