Jennifer Garner
Photo: Steve Granitz / Getty Images
As a kid in West Virginia, I had a very rich imaginary world. And my dream was to grow up to be a librarian, because I had a librarian named Mrs. McCann who I thought was the most magical woman on the planet. She used to publish little versions of my stories, typing them on manila folders and illustrating them with pictures of me and my teddy bear: T-Bear Goes to Mars and T-Bear's Trip to the Moon. She was my first mentor—the first person who really took an interest in me for me, which when you're a kid is a major deal. I've had other mentors, and those relationships were based on reading. They gave me a sense of who I was.

My mom grew up in poverty in dust bowl Oklahoma, and the thing that got her out was education. She had three daughters, and she did all the housekeeping, all the cooking, all the driving—just like moms do—and was also a teacher. But somehow, at night, she was in my room and we read to each other. I would read a page and she would read a page. And I felt like a different person because of that. Once I had kids, I looked at my baby and thought, "What am I supposed to do with you?" Nobody tells you how you need to play with them to help their brains develop. Mothers all over the country want what's best for their kids, but they might not have had a mom or dad like mine who took a keen interest in the way their minds worked. Yet they don't love their kids any less than I love mine. That's what made me become a Save the Children ambassador, and it's why I'm so passionate about early education in particular. I know that it was reading that helped me define myself.

jennifer garner bookshelf - crimes of the heart
Crimes of the Heart
By Beth Henley

I always loved acting, and I exhausted every performing opportunity my hometown had to offer. I never thought it was going to become anything more than a hobby for me, and when I started college, I was a chemistry major. I was so excited that there was a beginning acting class, so I signed up. Crimes of the Heart was the first play I read that I completely related to: I am the middle of three sisters, I come from a Southern family, and I wanted to be cast as one of the girls in this story. I changed my major to theater right after that. I love the immediacy—how a play distills the essence of the story. I've been a fan of Beth Henley's ever since. I've done bits of her plays in acting classes and they always fit like a glove.

possession
Possession
By A.S. Byatt

When I was starting out in my career, I lived in San Francisco. My friend and I were unemployed for chunks of time, and we'd tell each other: "Instead of panicking, go read. You won't have another chance in your whole life to dive into books." I got a lot of books read during those years, and Possession was one of them. I love the way the two main relationships—one in the present day and the other between two Victorian poets—are intertwined and counterpoints for each other. The sentences are all drippy with words that you have to look up in a dictionary, but they're so beautiful that it's worth taking the time. It almost doesn't matter what the story is about—it's one sentence at a time. Just stop and enjoy every single one.

the razor's edge
The Razor's Edge
By W. Somerset Maugham

This book is set between the world wars and is the honest telling of how someone gains maturity. The main character, Larry Darrell, is on a search for the absolute—he wants things to be black and white—while his fiancée has to figure out if she wants money or if she wants his love. I couldn't imagine making her choice, but she would crash and burn if she didn't choose what she did. I was in my early 20s at the time I read this. I was with the wrong guy and could have used that same self-awareness. I actually have this book on my Kindle. I've been rereading books that have meant something to me, trying to figure out if they still resonate and why. There's something very luxurious about going back to things you've read before, and I'm interested to see what I find in The Razor's Edge this time around.

john adams
John Adams
By David McCullough

I think David McCullough is one of our national treasures. I've tried to branch out and read other historians' work, but nothing sticks with me or gets the pages turned as quickly as his books. John Adams is incredibly, meticulously researched; you feel as if McCullough has gone back and felt the fabric of their clothes, smelled the paper that they wrote to each other on. What he writes has heft, because it's not only facts—you get a real sense of his subjects' lives. I'm in Boston right now, and I see Braintree on the map, where Adams lived. I drive by it and think, "Oh my gosh, that was a day's travel for him? That's ten minutes from here!" There's nothing like reading history about your own country and walking where they walked. Nobody does a better job than McCullough.

barefoot contessa
The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook
By Ina Garten

I read cookbooks like they're novels. I take them to bed at night. I rediscover one in my collection, and I pore over it. When I'm on location, as I am now, I always bring Ina Garten—sure enough, the tomatoes for her roasted-tomato basil soup are in the oven downstairs. Now that I have a family, it feels right to make their dinner, but it's daunting. Most cookbooks either try too hard to be easy—"and now you're going to throw in some Cheez Whiz"—or try too hard to be healthy. But her recipes are just good. They taste like a real cook has made you dinner. The swordfish is my husband's favorite thing in the world, and I make extra sauce to put on eggs the next morning. She knows what she's doing, that lady. She doesn't patronize you. She makes a cook out of a noncook. Buy a few ingredients, make one of her recipes, and you'll feel like a stud.

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