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12 books that influenced my life

A few friends invited me to participate in one of the Facebook challenge to list 10 books that influenced me.  The trick is not to think about it too much and share the first titles that come to mind.

How’s an English major, freelance writer, and life-long reader supposed to narrow a list of cherished books down to 10?

Here’s what I came up with, along with why I picked what I did. Many made the list because they evoke a specific memory or moment in my life. When I could find them, I included an image of the book jacket of the edition that I read:

The Once and Future King

High school junior year lit class with an awesome teacher who taught me how to write a term paper.

The Once and Future King

The Great Gatsby

For the last paragraph alone.

The Great Gatsby

Paradise Lost

Because Dr. Sawaya was hot, and not just because he was so damn smart, and it was one of my first experiences with explicating a classic text.

Paradise Lost book cover

Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead

Consumed in late-night reading jags in my dingy apartment in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, when I should have been working on my master’s thesis. Everybody has an Ayn Rand phase, don’t they?

Atlas Shrugged book cover

A Tale of Two Cities

With my Eurail pass, my companion for some long, rainy days in Austria, and the start of my love affair with a certain Mr. Dickens.

Tale of Two Cities book cover


The impetus for the 1994 Book Club, a book club I left when I moved from California to Oregon 11 years ago and miss so much I can’t even tell you. Finished the end sitting in my car in the Orange County Register parking structure before work one day bawling my eyes out.

Possession book cover

I’ve Been in Sorrow’s Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots

If you don’t know southern California novelist Susan Straight, you need to read this. And Highwire Moon.

Sorrows Kitchen book cover

Cold Mountain

One of those books that you have to force yourself through the first 50 or 60 pages and then… The Odyssey retold in the hills of North Carolina. And so much better than the movie.

Cold Mountain book cover


I hadn’t reached the ending by our book club met to talk about it — and we never didn’t talk about the ending because someone hadn’t read it. When I finally finished, the end still blew me away. So many good books start well but end poorly. This one doesn’t disappoint. The movie isn’t as good.

Atonement book cover

Stones for Ibarra

Heartbreakingly beautiful short stories set in Mexico that Harriett Doerr published as a first-time novelist when she was 74. There’s hope for me yet.

Stones for Ibarra book cover

The Power Broker

Robert Caro’s groundbreaking portrait of New York public works powerhouse Robert Moses; a study in in-depth journalism that makes a difference.


The Barbarians at the Gate

This book made me want to be a newspaper business reporter. This real-life Wall Street mergers and acquisitions thriller that came out in 1989, around the same time as two fictional takes on the same subject, Tom Wolfe’s novel, Bonfire of the Vanities, and the movie, “Wall Street.”

Barbarians at the Gate book cover

On Writing Well

I’ve blogged about this one, by William Zinsser. It’s one of my top picks for books on the art and craft of writing, along with one-time WSJ writing coach William Blundell’s now out-of-print classic The Art and Craft of Feature Writing, and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird.

On Writing Well

And if I could add to the list: Pride and Prejudice, The Education of Henry Adams, The Scarlett Letter, Ethan Frome, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Sophie’s Choice, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, The Signature of All Things, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Katherine Graham, Slouching Toward Bethelem, The White Album, East of Eden, The Sun Also Rises……