To the Lighthouse — Virginia Woolf
I read this book in my freshman year of college and I remember feeling almost shaken by it; it was as though someone had found all the unsayable things in my own mind and cloaked them in language. This was the story of my relationship with my mother; of my relationship with time; of my relationship with the written word. Many writers do something I can’t do; Woolf does what I can do, but so, so much better than I could ever do it.
War and Peace — Leo Tolstoy
I’d never been interested in this thick book, but I was writing about Russia and it began to feel like a gap in my education. I had an hour-long train ride twice every day in Moscow and I read the whole book on that train, week after week. I love the shocking intimacy of the grandest moments here, and the arresting universality of the most personal ones. Few authors can paint an entire, self-contained world, but this is one, as complex and as real as reality itself.
The Complete Poems — Emily Dickinson
I always had a taste for the quirky and the metaphysical, and Dickinson’s ability to capture despair and hope in a single poem continues to move me. I love her self-effacing voice, her quiet insistence on nuance, her wry and halting images, and her ease with death. There is a peculiar kindness in her writing as well, half-hidden by her intense curiosity. She lives in the poems more than she ever lived in real life. They make you breathe in life anew.
A Different Person — James Merrill
This isn’t an ”important” book, but it’s an impossibly charming one, and in its depiction of a gay person’s journey to self-acceptance, it has great resonance for me. James Merrill writes of the period before he was established as a great poet, and describes what he needed to figure out – not so much how to write as how to live. How to learn to love. And how to put that learning into practice. His book shows us how to do the same.
Rootabaga Stories — Carl Sandburg
I think I fell in love with language the day my father first read to me from the Rootabaga Stories. Carl Sandburg said he wrote them as American fairy tales for people who hadn’t grown up with kings and princesses and castles. But I loved them for their music, their subtle melancholy, their untrammelled imagination, and for their poignant wit. Reading them to my own children now, I recognise how much my literary voice has borrowed from Sandburg’s distinctly American cadence.