From backpacking to sex, the much-adored author and essayist admits to a weakness for books that tell her what to do, how to do it and where.
Fiction and poetry have had a greater influence on my emotions. Essays and reportage have had a greater influence on my work. But if I were to be honest about the books that have actually changed my life—that is, changed what I do between when I wake up in the morning and when I fall asleep at night—I'd have to admit that nothing can equal a how-to book.

For as long as I can remember, I've had a weakness for books by people who can do something better than I can and are bent on relieving me of my cluelessness. I fall for illustrations of declogged drains, galantined chickens, upgraded motherboards and groomed hamsters. Even if I have no intention of carrying out the intended task (if, for instance, I do not own a hamster and lack even a hypothetical interest in rodent makeovers), I nonetheless find myself energized by the idea of carrying it out. And if I do intend to do it, then, for a time, the book becomes my bible.

Each of the four books I've chosen has filled me with can-do spirit at a different juncture in my life. Though only one of them—the last—remains a daily influence, they're all still important to me because their dog-eared pages constitute a record of my past selves. I've written here about the original editions, but all four are still in print, gleaming with twenty-first-century revisions and potentially ready to seize new readers as emphatically as the earlier versions seized me.

Anne Fadiman's newest essay collection is At Large and At Small.

What's on Anne Fadiman's Bookshelf? Read more!


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