This short novel about an aged Cuban fisherman's battle to land a giant marlin remains a favorite because it redefined my concept of success. I first read it in high school at a time when I was driven solely by achievement, or more specifically, by the visible trophies of success: varsity letters, academic commendations, writing awards. Hemingway's story unveiled a philosophy in which the final outcome was not nearly as important as the journey. Even now, in midlife, I find this story still serves as a touchstone, urging me to embark on challenges simply for the sake of the voyage, regardless of my chances of triumph or failure.
Much Ado About Nothing By William Shakespeare
I didn't really enjoy Shakespeare in school, and it wasn't until I started teaching his plays that I realized how much fun they are. Admittedly, the title "Much Ado About Nothing" pretty much sums up the plot, but this playful tale of a woman falsely accused of unfaithfulness is packed with wordplay, dirty jokes, hilarious insults and the wittiest dialogue you'll find anywhere. If you're hesitant to dive back into Shakespeare because the language can be difficult to understand, why not rent a film or audio version? (My favorite rendition is the 1993 film with Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh, but that's probably because everyone on-screen is so tan and gorgeous and appears to be on the verge of hysterics over the Bard's tongue-in-cheek script.) No matter how you rediscover Much Ado, you'll find a therapeutic reminder that the pitfalls of social interaction (jealousy, self-doubt, physical desire, etc.) have remained unchanged for centuries.
Gödel, Escher, Bach By Richard Hofstadter
Probably the most famous and entertaining modern exploration of the interrelations among math, art and music, this Pulitzer Prize-winning book will appeal to those interested in exploring connections among seemingly disparate disciplines. Using plenty of diagrams and surprisingly accessible prose, Hofstadter exposes astonishing points of contact among the fugues of Bach, the intricate art of M.C. Escher and the groundbreaking brainstorms of Austrian-born mathematician Kurt Gödel. I first read Gödel, Escher, Bach when I was 18. Most of it went miles over my head, but the premise affected me deeply. This is the first book in which I found answers to questions regarding the contrary viewpoints of science and religion, nature and philosophy.
Of Mice and Men By John Steinbeck
This tale is simple, suspenseful, and poignant. As a writer, I can't help admiring (and learning from) Steinbeck's gift for descriptive prose. He manages to balance his descriptive elements with the storyline to make a wholly compelling and enveloping experience. Of Mice and Men remains a wonderful escape to times when the pace and chaos of modern life were not so overwhelming. Despite its idyllic setting, the tale's more serious and sorrowful moments prevent us from getting too wistful for the good old days, offering instead the stark suggestion that tragedy and heartache are as timeless as hope and joy.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Okay, it's a medieval poem (written circa 1400), so how could it be relevant today? In an age of ecological crisis and moral ambiguity, this legend conjures up a lost time in which nature and honor reigned supreme. The saga of a knight's quest to make good on a bizarre promise to the formidable Green Knight is full of steamy kisses, ferocious confrontation and deeply mysterious landscapes. Short enough to consume in a single sitting, Sir Gawain entertains with cinematic themes of seduction, temptation, searching and powerful evil. Months after you finish, you'll find yourself thinking of Sir Gawain at the strangest moments, pondering his quest, his decisions and his ultimate fate.