1. “I, Robot” by Isaac Asimov. Turning from science fact to science fiction, the Asimov robot stories are miniature masterpieces, each working out a single idea, with a twist at the end. That said, the human characters range from cardboard cutouts to offensive stereotypes — the robots are much more appealing and interesting.
2. “Dante’s Inferno” trans. by John Ciardi. The combination of poetry and elaborately worked out allegory blew me away when I first read it and still does.
3. “The Elegant Universe” by Brian Greene. What little I understand of string theory comes from Greene’s heroic effort at popularization. If string theory does turn out to be the long-sought “theory of everything”, the metaphors and explanations Greene has devised will be the basis of science textbooks forever.
4. “Changing Places” by David Lodge. A hilarious comic novel about professors and the universities they inhabit. One long academic in-joke.
5. “Lord of the Rings” and “The Silmarillion” by J.R.R. Tolkein. I’ve also read the dozens of volumes of excerpts from Tolkein’s notebooks published by his son, and I’ve watched all the appendices on the extended version DVD. In my own defense: I do NOT speak Elvish.
Finally, let me put in a strong plug for “The Ornament of the World” by Yale’s own Maria Menocal. Required reading for anyone concerned about relations between Islamic, Jewish and Christian cultures, and a real page-turner besides.