This is my favorite part of my website: the place where I can share titles of books I love! This is not an exhaustive list, but what I consider “a good start.”
Here are twenty books that have had a huge influence upon me and my writing. These are also books that I will go back and reread again and again, another important requirement for being listed here.
1. The English Patient, by Michael Ondaatje (1992)
I carried this novel in my pack throughout my first trip to India. Ondaatje’s prose in this book is something sacred to me. He writes with such profound poetry. This novel is pure beauty, pure joy, pure divinity. I love it, love it, love it.
“We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have plunged into and swum up as if rivers of wisdom, characters we have climbed into as if trees, fears we have hidden in as if caves. I wish for all this to be marked on my body when I am dead. I believe in such cartography–to be marked by nature, not just to label ourselves on a map like the names of rich men and women on buildings. We are communal histories, communal books. […]
I carried Katharine Clifton into the desert, where there is the communal book of moonlight. We were among the rumour of wells. In the palace of winds.” [p. 261 in my paperback copy]
I think the movie is excellent, too. One of the best book-to-film adaptations ever made. A true work of art.
2. The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy (1997)
A novel tied with The English Patient as my favorite book of all time, I didn’t read Roy’s book until the summer after I graduated from college, in 2003, and it has been a favorite of mine since the day I read the opening words:
“May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month. The days are long and humid. The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dustgreen trees. Red bananas ripen. Jackfruits burst. Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously in the fruity air. Then they stun themselves against clear windowpanes and die, fatly baffled in the sun.”
What a beautiful opening paragraph. What a beautiful, beautiful book.
I still cry when I read this book. For all of these characters, but– of course– for Velutha. One of the greatest characters ever created in fiction. “As lonely as a wolf. A brown leaf on his black back. That made the monsoons come on time.” [p.278 in my paperback copy]
I can’t wait until Arundhati Roy publishes fiction again. I know that she will. I’ve never believed otherwise, and never lost hope, despite what anyone–including Roy herself–has ever said. She is just too powerful a writer, and fiction is home.
3. A Separate Peace, by John Knowles (1959)
The first time I read this book, I was a junior in high school, and this book made no sense.
Not just because Gene is a total jerk in this book for no reason– though that certainly aggravated me to no end at the time– it was just that I couldn’t understand that this was a story about a world I had no exposure to, and could not envision or understand.
That Gene and Finny are at boarding school? Went right over my head. I had no idea what boarding school was, or that these two young boys were even “at” boarding school. Wearing uniforms, with matching ties, and all the rest. Sixteen-year-old me had no mental picture of that, and managed to read the novel without ever figuring that out.
I didn’t even understand they were in high school. They seemed like young adults to me, like they were in college perhaps (another concept that, at the age of sixteen, would have gone right over my head. I was utterly clueless what college was like.)
When I consider how much of this book was pure gibberish to me when I was sixteen, I feel a powerful surge of resentment. Because I start to think about how much I hate the fact that, in public school, we are so often forced to read books in class that assume a large amount of cultural understanding, an understanding we are given no background for, so we have no way to engage with a beautiful story– because the material is written in a way that’s going to sail right over our heads.
My resentment doesn’t ever last too long, however, because there is also the fact that because I read this book at sixteen, and it was gibberish, I went back and reread the book after college. When it wasn’t gibberish anymore.
When it was breathtakingly, stop the freaking bus amazing.
So amazingly good that I place it this high on my list of books that have had a huge emotional impact upon me.
Gene is a selfish jerk.
Finny, on the other hand, is beautiful, not just in outward appearance, but in his heart. He is so incredibly wonderful that his character does what Velutha does in The God of Small Things— Finny is going to suffer, and suffer greatly, to teach the reader a lesson about life. About brutality, and pain. And about the darkness that lives inside the human heart, and what terrible things some people can do to each other.
Finny is perfect. He is the sacrificial lamb, and Gene is the one who puts his story in words.
I wish I had understood this when I was sixteen.
But the fact that I reread the novel, once I had an understanding of the larger world– populated by people who have the money to send their young children to boarding school, and everything else that entails– well, reading this book at that point was a tremendous gift. I love this novel. So much.
4. Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster, by Jon Krakauer (1997)
One of the best books I have ever read in my life.
Profoundly moving. Gut-wrenching.
I hung on every word. I cried. I was a different person by the end.
There is no higher praise than to call a book transformative, and that is what reading Into Thin Air was for me.
5. The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls (2005)
Gorgeous memoir. I love that so many people love this book. I’m definitely one of them.
6. The Liars’ Club, by Mary Karr (1995)
Another memoir that left an indelible mark. I’ve also read Cherry and Lit, but The Liars’ Club remains my favorite.
I didn’t find this book until Lit was published, and I discovered Mary Karr by reading the review for that book. So I actually read her books out of order, and started with Lit, then The Liars’ Club, and then Cherry. I adore her work. Her writing is so poetic and visceral. She astounds me.
7. The Road to Avalon, by Joan Wolf (1988)
I first read this book at sixteen. I adore it. Sweet, heartbreaking, romantic. Glorious.
8. Red Azalea, by Anchee Min (1994)
One of the most powerful, beautiful, brutal, and stunning memoirs ever written.
I first read this book when I was fourteen or so. I reread the book after college, and the story of Anchee Min’s childhood in communist China was even more powerful to me all those years later, as I knew so much more about Chinese history by then.
My love for this memoir is so incredibly profound.
9. Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon (1991)
I read this novel so I could watch the TV show on Starz. I read the book once, then immediately read it a second time. Love the writing, love the book, love the characters, love the story.
The belt-beating scene was definitely hard. The first time I read the book, I had to skip over it. And I certainly understand why that scene is a deal-breaker for so many readers.
But for those who can forgive the scene, or accept its existence, I think this novel is worth the hardship of reading that horror. It sure was for me.
10. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, by Bryan Stevenson (2014)
This is one of the most important nonfiction books I’ve ever read in my life. Recommended for EVERYONE.
11. I Am Charlotte Simmons, by Tom Wolfe (2004)
Such a dark and beautiful novel. Brilliant writing. This book had a huge impact on me while I was writing my first novel. An empowering and enlightening read.
12. Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America, by Barbara Ehrenreich (2001)
I fell in love with Barbara Ehrenreich after reading this nonfiction book. I’ve read some of her other books, and this one remains my favorite. When I found this book, I was a struggling kid out of college, unable to make ends meet, and I read this book over and over. Nickel and Dimed was essential to helping me forgive myself, and put my financial failures in the broader context of an economic system that sets people up to live in working poverty.
Nickel and Dimed is beautifully written, powerful, and abounding in truth. This book helped me survive my life, gave me strength when I needed it, and shared wisdom I desperately needed to hear. It’s a masterpiece.
13. On Writing, by Stephen King (2000)
Part memoir, part writing manual, this book is pure genius. Makes me cry, makes me smile, makes me proud to call myself a writer.
14. Kabuki graphic novels, by David Mack (starting 1994)
These graphic novels are AMAZING. I have loved them for years. GORGEOUS art. Beautiful story. The first one in the series is Circle of Blood.
16. The Lover, by Marguerite Duras (1984)
A novel that is really a memoir. This book is absolutely stunning. The story focuses on the violence and horror of growing up in poverty. The writing is so incredibly powerful. This book takes my breath away.
17. Prep, by Curtis Sittenfeld (2005)
The protagonist of this novel, Lee Fiora, is not someone you’re meant to love. Not the way readers are meant to love Harry Potter, or Katniss Everdeen, or Atticus Finch, or other characters who are drawn to be obvious heroes. Lee Fiora is not one of those people. That said, I do love Lee Fiora, as many other readers do, but I love her in spite of herself.
Because Lee is self-conscious to a fault. Her bitter awareness of her middle-class status amidst the upper-class world of boarding school sets her up for failure in this story, and that’s what this novel is all about– how Lee Fiora messes up her own life.
This book is so brilliant, the writing so amazing, that this novel held me spellbound the first time I read it. Then held me spellbound again a few months later, when I just had to read it again and bask in this book’s complete and perfect awesomeness.
Elissa Schappell wrote a beautiful review for Prep in The New York Times, which you can read here, if you’d like to learn more about the plot of this book.
And here is the book’s opening sentence, which gives me goosebumps to type, because I love this book so much: “I think that everything, or at least the part of everything that happened to me, started with the Roman architecture mix-up.”
If you haven’t read this novel yet– what are you doing still reading this page? Go and get this book! Devour it! It’s dark and sad and disturbing and beautiful and very, very real.
18. Thank You for Your Service, by David Finkel (2013)
Nonfiction. This book made me sob, and sob, and sob. Don’t pick up this book unless you’re ready to examine the reality of what happens to combat troops when they come home. The research the author did for this book is unflinching.
I read the first book, The Good Soldiers. That was also excellent.
Thank You for Your Service tore me open. Few books are so powerful as this one.
I also adore Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, by Katherine Boo (2012). Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, by Cheryl Strayed (2012) is also amazing, as is Cowboys Are My Weakness, by Pam Houston (1992). Every molecule in my body fell in love with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain (2012) and every time I talk to someone now, I can’t help but mention how amazing this book is, and try to summon the perfect pitch to convince that person to read it. I love this novel on every level I can possibly love a book. And I’ve never read a more gripping, haunting ending than the one in Serena, by Ron Rash (2009) who writes with such beauty about terrible things.
If you have your own Top 20 List (or would like to make one) I hope you will share it with me on My Readers page. I’d love to see the titles that inspire you, and find a great book that I haven’t read yet!