When I got my MA in English Lit I had to read more than 100 great works. I was 22, and didn't have much of an idea about the great themes or historical context. I was overwhelmed and pretty clueless.
But the following books changed my life from childhood to the present, for better or worse. The books are not all great, but they all greatly influenced me. They got to me.
To choose these books I used the non-cognitive theory in Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. I went with what came to mind immediately as I created this list, an action that makes sense to me, and one I have used often in major situations. So Blink can be considered the bonus eleventh book.
The Babar series written and illustrated by Jean de Brunhoff
The theme may have been benign authoritarianism but the setting for these French children's books was exotic and captivating. I wasn't sure where Babar, Arthur, Celeste and all the other elephants lived, and perhaps this was the first inkling that I would become a travel writer -- and one of the first inspirations. (I believe the setting was inspired by Tunisia, and eventually I did travel there. I found no elephants, but loads of camels.)
Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
At Nautilus Junior High in Miami Beach, my English teacher, Mrs. Gelber, handed me a paperback book titled Diary of a Young Girl. It was only ten years after Anne Frank's death, and I was then 13, the age that Anne had been when she was given her diary, on her birthday. I was awestruck and aware that had my grandparents stayed in Europe, they would have been rounded up during the Holocaust.
Later in my life I experienced several connections to Anne Frank. You can read about them here.
Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh
I was awarded this book in ninth grade, as winner of a citywide essay contest. The book not only offers magnificent writing about nature and solitude, the fact that I had been awarded it made me realize that I could write. At that time I was feeling pretty down on myself, so it was a godsend.
A Stone for Danny Fisher by Harold Robbins
Robbins wrote potboilers, but this more serious early novel about a lower-middle class kid who became a boxer was set in the Depression. The kids in junior high (that's what middle school was called in the 1950s in Miami Beach) were passing around it around as a "dirty book." This rite-of-passage paperback tried to be meaningful, but what I learned about was sex, at least from a man's point of view. Goodbye Clara Barton, Student Nurse.
The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann
Life, death, irony, a setting from the past in the mountains of a far away land, but which reverberated in my own life in flat Miami Beach. This magnificent novel whetted my appetite for literary fiction and influenced my choice of college major and graduate degrees: literature.
Couples by John Updike
Like A Stone for Danny Fisher, this book influenced my understanding of the consequences of sexuality, and helped hasten the end of my first marriage to my high school sweetheart. Updike wrote in so many different forms; I have read just about all of his novels and many of his short stories, essays and poems.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Persig
I understood when I read this philosophical book that I was a hopeless romantic. From that point on I saw myself and others in a new way. It explained to me about why having to work at relationships can be so difficult, and that sometimes a relationship wasn't going to go anywhere. Another reality check. I later learned that this perennial bestseller was rejected by over 120 publishers. This gave me hope as a writer.
Atonement by Ian McEwan
This book --so far superior to the movie --reinvigorated my interest in contemporary novels. McEwan takes huge themes and places them in contemporary settings. He creates great reads that leave you with much to ponder and discuss. McEwan inspires me as a writer, and I've read all his major novels.
Day by Day by Chaim Stern
This wise and gentle collection of reflections from literature, philosophy, and religious thought was dedicated to me. The historian Howard Fast called it "a manual for living... an amazing spring of what wisdom we have gained as a people." Even if the author weren't my late husband, I would adore this book. I go to it often for solace and understanding, and simply for reassurance that humanity doesn't suck. I hear his voice and the wise words of hundreds of others.
Solo Traveler: Tales and Tips for Great Trips by Me
This book, published five years ago, saved my life. I was in a terrible place, coping with my husband's death, battling his relatives over his estate, moving out of my house in New York, afraid of losing everything. The book won an award for best travel book of the year from the North American Travel Writers Association. It got me out of bed and into the whirl of media, and created a brand -solo lady - that gave me strength.