I came across this short novel in college, when I was first introduced to all things Eastern: religion, literature, and history. It's about this notion that life is a journey you should undertake as an adventure, and you should never think there's a single goal to be reached. This is what a young man named Siddhartha learns while traveling through ancient India. At the time I read it, turning 20, I was waiting for things to unfold before me. I kept thinking, "Oh, when I get out of college, then I'll start my life." I found Siddhartha's quest to be a powerful lesson: The answer is in the journey. It has stuck with me and comforted me at different points in my life.
Rabbit Angstrom: The Four Novels By John Updike
No author captures the feeling of this country the way Updike does. These four novels—my all-time favorite books—follow one man, Rabbit (born Harry Angstrom), from his post-high school years in a blue-collar Pennsylvania city until his death. The result is an amazing history of America, especially what it was like to be an average Joe from the 1950s through the 1980s. If I have any understanding of the 1960s—the years when I was a baby—it's mostly from Rabbit.
Up in the Old Hotel By Joseph Mitchell
Mitchell was a writer for The New Yorker, and this is a collection of essays and stories about New York City in the early to mid-20th century. Most of the people he profiled were ordinary New Yorkers—like an old Staten Islander recalling the oyster business in that area—but through his writing, they become the most fascinating characters. I did a movie about Mitchell with my friend Stanley Tucci called Joe Gould's Secret. (Gould was one of Mitchell's subjects.) What I love most about this book is that the city it portrays has all but vanished from the one I live in now.
Little House in the Big Woods By Laura Ingalls Wilder
This is the first in a series of books that are based on Wilder's childhood, in the late 1800s. I love stories that give me a perspective on how easy American life has become in the 21st century. This was my introduction to what the people who settled this country went through. It's about how the Ingalls family spends the days just trying to obtain food and shelter and how the hardships they endure bring them closer together.
My Antonia By Willa Cather
This is another story of intrepid pioneers—a novel told primarily from the point of view of a boy, Jim, who lives near a girl whose family left Europe for the Nebraska prairie. I reread this novel every couple of years because Cather beautifully depicts the place and the people of that era—people who were tough and resourceful. Life now is physically so easy—how much time do we have to spend planting wheat or baking bread?—and the challenges have changed so much. It's appealing to be reminded of what hardy stock we come from.
Travels with Charley: In Search of America By John Steinbeck
I love John Steinbeck. Like Updike, he is one of the great observers of American life. This is a chronicle of a trip Steinbeck took with his dog, Charley, in 1960 when they traveled cross-country in a camper van. Steinbeck watches a school anti-desegregation demonstration in the South and gives a firsthand account of how ugly things were. Other passages are more rueful and funny. His companion, the dog, has his own opinions about everything. It's such an intimate tale of these two souls going across the United States.