A collection of brilliant, gentle essays by one of the great minds of the past century. The writing is so perfect one can only quote it: "A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life depend on the labours of other men, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have received and am still receiving."
One Hundred Years of Solitude By Gabriel García Márquez
I began reading this book on a sailboat in the British Virgin Islands. A fellow poet had given it to me, saying it was poetry made into prose, the thing Ernest Hemingway felt we should strive to create. William Faulkner also made poetry into prose, and later I would learn that Márquez had studied Faulkner when he was learning to write. The opening line is famous among writers. We all wish we could create one this good: "Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice."
The Territorial Imperative By Robert Ardrey
First published in 1966, this dazzling book about the science of anthropology taught me my place in the universe. On the same boat where I discovered Márquez, a friend handed me this book and changed the way I understood the world. It was full of humbling, exciting ideas. "We may prefer to think of ourselves as fallen angels but in reality we are risen apes," as Ardrey's contemporary Desmond Morris would later put it. Risen apes who could create written language and walk on the moon and transplant hearts and write the Constitution of the United States of America.
The Curve of Binding Energy By John McPhee
I had tried for years to comprehend nuclear power, and finally McPhee, by his magical ability to make the complex understandable, taught it to me. Still, I have to learn it over and over again. The knowledge is too terrible to carry in the front of my brain. People are in denial about the radioactive materials we've created and can't get rid of. If you read only one of the books on this list, let it be this one.
The Riverside Shakespeare By William Shakespeare
These 39 plays have been my most important writing teachers. They remind me that the greatest author who ever lived wrote bad plays to begin with and then got better and better until he wrote Hamlet and Macbeth and King Lear and Romeo and Juliet. For 14 years, a group of friends have come over on Sunday afternoons to read the plays aloud. No matter how many times we read one of the great plays, I always feel I have never understood it before. There is no way to grasp the genius of Shakespeare. I am content that it exists in the world, and that I have copies of the plays and friends to share them with.
North Toward Home By Willie Morris
This is the story of Morris's rise to power as the youngest editor of Harper's magazine and of how he left the South behind and shook off the racism he had learned as a child. There is no bitterness in Morris's writing. His book was very important to young people in the South when it was published in 1967. It taught me that it was all right to be a traitor to my family and my culture and to go out on the street and march for civil rights. It was a terrifying adventure, and Morris's book was the bible I carried with me as I marched.
Collected Poems By Edna St. Vincent Millay
Since I was 13 years old and was taught a poem called "God's World," I have read and loved Millay's poetry. She was a devotee of Shakespeare, and his influence is everywhere in her work. I know all her sonnets by heart, since I read them so assiduously when I was young and always in love with whoever wouldn't love me back. Now that I am older and have read Shakespeare, I hear the echoes between his poetry and lines I loved in Millay. She didn't copy him. She was deeply influenced by him, which is a glorious thing for a reader to discover, like knowing that two friends knew each other in another world.