1. Charlotte's Web, by E.B. White
This was the first book that transported me spiritually to where I felt as if I were inside the story. It also made me know in no uncertain terms how profoundly books could affect me emotionally. I read it when I was 8 and cried my heart out. I could read it today with the same response.
2. The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger
I felt like I was getting away with something for reading and enjoying this book so much. It was my first brush with the anti-hero, and it clued me - a rather clueless teenager - in to the fact that boys had very rich inner lives too, and that they were caring, hurting people just trying to figure things out like I was. Plus it took the focus off parents, and that was a liberating literary discovery too.
3. The Second Sex, by Simone de Beauvoir
I read the 1952 version, translated by H.M. Parshley, and I have more recently read that a newer translation is more closely aligned with de Beauvoir's intended meaning. I have not read that one yet. But no matter. This is a book that fundamentally changed the way that I look at humankind. It wasn't an easy read and it wasn't a quick read, but it was well the time I invested in it.
4. Victory Over Japan, by Ellen Gilchrist
I read this collection of short stories in one sitting in 1989 when I was heavily pregnant with my first child and ill with a stomach virus. Gilchrist's renderings were honest and sometimes brutal, and she gave me a view into a world that was geographically similar to mine, but removed by several decades. Her unapologetic tales of growing up female in the post-war South and of the darker sides of human nature that we want to wish away made me want to be a writer.
5. The Portable Dorothy Parker
To anyone who wants to write short stories I would say, "Here, read this." Parker was really so much more than what most people imagine if they only know the Algonquin Round Table part of her. Her stories were flawless, and they held up ordinary goings on to the sort of scrutiny that most of us are too afraid to contemplate on our own. If you want your heart ripped out and put on a platter before you, read "Big Blonde."
As I said, these weren't necessarily my favorite books in terms of entertainment value, but they all got me right in the heart in some fundamental way, and I like to think I have a richer interior life for having read them.
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