I went to the French lycée in Los Angeles, and, like every high school student in the French school system, I studied the work of 19th-century poet Charles Baudelaire. At 15, the height of brooding and dark self-discovery, I recited his poems by heart and thrilled to the exotic language, filled with taboo ideas and strange metaphors involving death and decay. It's a must-read for any depressed adolescent.
I wrote my senior essay in college on this book, specifically Morrison's relationship to the African oral-narrative tradition. My favorite passage describes a water stain on a wood table—how that stain takes on new life and meaning with the passage of time and family history. I think Morrison has the most deeply poetic voice in contemporary American fiction, and I have never missed reading anything she's written.
Cathedral By Raymond Carver
Carver is the king of minimalism, and these short stories are some of his leanest. He writes characters who are completely unaware of their own motivations or the significance of their actions. They just live and don't ask why. As an actress and reader, I love the discipline of spare characterizations. You soak up the few details offered and do the work to figure out the characters yourself.
The Complete Greek Tragedies: Euripides
When I was about 13, I became very interested in classic Greek tragedies, and I think these represent the best of them. They combine what we'd identify as modern psychology with the concept of destiny. It's impossible to forget these characters—Medea, for instance, who kills her own beloved children when faced with her husband's betrayal. These are stories of such passion.
Naked By David Sedaris
In this collection of autobiographical essays, humanity's wicked little details are seen through the eyes of a truly strange man. Sedaris's observations are sometimes weirdly funny and unexpectedly moving—including his trip of self-discovery to a nudist camp. I read Naked in one sitting and then bought five copies to give to friends.
Letters to a Young Poet By Rainer Maria Rilke
This is a collection of letters that Rilke wrote to a poet who'd asked for his advice. It's clear that Rilke wants to encourage the younger man, yet he can't help betraying his own disillusionment with the world and his feelings of insignificance. I love how humble Rilke is—how beaten down by the creative process yet hopeful. I've given this book to a few directors and wrapped each copy in a silk scarf. When I feel like a failure or have doubts about my work, this is the sacred book I take off the shelf and unwrap, very delicately.
Printed from Oprah.com on Monday, December 9, 2013