The GULAG Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
People who think they're living in a repressive police state here in America need to STFU and read this book, because they obviously have no idea what a real police state looks like or how it functions. Solzhenitsyn's classic work of history, assembled painstakingly under the noses of the KGB, recounts the history of the massive prison camp system, the secret police organizations that built, staffed, and often died in it, the perverted legal system that fed it, and the twisted political system that gave birth to it in the midst of the Revolution. Solzhenitsyn dispels the myth that the GULAG was born from Stalin's madness; rather, he makes clear that a system of this sort was what Lenin had in mind all along. There is an excellent article on the book in the Wikipedia.
I first read this book in junior high school, and if I had ever had any doubts about Communism, this killed those doubts forever. Coming on the heels of One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich which I'd read years earlier while making my way through my father's collection of the Time Reading Program books, this also determined my military career: I chose Russian over Chinese or Korean whe I enlisted in the Army, because someday I wanted to read Arkhipelag' GULag in the original Russian. It's a tribute to the quality of instruction at the Defense Language Institute that I could do so without having to refer to my Smirnitsky Russian-English dictionary more than once every dozen pages.
Once An Eagle, Anton Myrer
I don't think there's another book out there quite like Myrer's classic novel about Sad Sam Damon and his nemesis, Courtney Massengale, who rise through the ranks of the Army's officer corps from quite disparate origins: Sam Damon leaves Nebraska to enlist in the Army during the Mexican Expedition, wins the Medal of Honor, a battlefield commission, and a wife in France; Massengale comes from a down-at-heels upper-class New York family, goes to West Point, and spends World War One as a staff officer far behind the lines. Damon takes care of his troops and leads from the front, while Massengale exemplifies the overly political staff officer, ultimately maneuvering his way into a corps command under MacArthur in the Philippines despite never previously commanding troops at all. The book has become a cult classic for Army and Marine officers alike for its stark, often brutal portrayal of the horror of war and the men who fight them, and the women they love.
I came across Once An Eagle in high school and hae since read several paperback copies to death. There are a lot of lessons to be drawn from the book, but it wouldn't be half as popular as it is if it weren't such a damn good story in its own right. There are dozens of memorable characters, all of them fully-rounded people with their own stories..."Paprika Ben" Krisler, "Porky" Bannerman, Reb Raebyrne, Joe Brand, Emily Massengale, Tommy Damon, and most of all the protagonists themselves. Sam Damon is no stainless hero, and Courtney Massengale isn't totally evil; Myrer shows them to us at their best and their worst. I have a weakness for well-written soap operas, and this globe-spanning masterpiece depicting the agonies and ecstasies of an Army officer's career that spans the World Wars is one of the best. I really ought to get a hardback copy of this one.
NBC turned the book into a miniseries back in 1976, but apparently cut the last section of the book and changed the ending. I'd assume they made other cuts as well, but since they haven't released the DVD I have no way of knowing.
Rocket Ship Galileo, Robert Heinlein
This is actually the proxy for the half-dozen Heinlein juveniles that somehow had wound up in the collection of my elementary school in Maryland, which the librarian wished she could give me when I left the 6th grade for junior high since nobody else ever read them. This book, along with Time for the Stars, Between Planets, Farmer in the Sky and Space Cadet, really got me into the habit of reading science fiction, which I hadn't really developed yet in spite of reading Madeline L'Engle's A Wrinkle In Time back in second grade and Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles in third. Heinlein's first juveile novel recounts the adventures of the "Galileo Rocketry, Marching & Chowder Society", four young high-school friends who get involved in a retired atomic scientist's plan to convert a surplus UN suborbital mail rocket into a fission-powered craft capable of reaching the Moon. This they then do, but they find on arrival that they're not the first humans to reach the moon, and that's when the real fun starts. The first of a dozen or so juvenile novels written by Heinlein for Scribners; the last, Starship Troopers is probably the most famous due to its rejection.