- Charlotte's Web by E.B. White. This was the first long book I read. It hooked me at age six, and still does. The repetitive barnyard goose warning the pig, "He's trying to lure you into captivity-ivity-ivity" gave me a sense of the writer's ear for dialogue, something Eudora Welty picked up in her review of the book for the New York Times. White taught me to assume your audience can handle detail, death and difficulty, and that a writer can be smart, playful and sincere, all at once. The active verbs ring like bells, and the descriptions stick. These days, I like to listen to the audio version, read by White himself, honey for the ear. If you've only read this to children, read it again with a writer's eye.
- A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle. I didn't imagine working with scientists as much as I have done when I first read this, but this might have been a good early sign. I love that it neatly avoids dumbing down science for the non-scientist. That it included a woman scientist balancing lab and life well was a revelation and a bonus. L'Engle makes symphonies with her words. Listen to her reading on audio for that reason.
- The Essays of Virginia Woolf. I dip into the six volume collection again and again. The mind that could channel stream of consciousness like no other also produced taut, well-reasoned essays that conjure pictures in the mind's eye as well as any of her novels does. Metaphor is her medium. The link here goes to a highlights reel that skims the surface of the big lake of her essays.
- In Front of Your Nose, 1945-1950 by George Orwell. Like Woolf, it's his journalism, essays and letters (here, just one volume in a series) that I love best. Every word sings. One of the great joys I have in social media is the chance to read the Orwell Diaries recast as a blog, each post shared on the same day it was written. The immediate, spare language gets even more exciting in installments, even when you already know how things turn out.
- Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Essays by Joan Didion. I used to leave bookmarks and dog-eared pages and bookcover flaps tucked into hard-copy books of Didion's writing, to hold on to the vivid moments in her writing. This woman shaped the scope of what I hope to do every day in my writing, in form, in language, in approach. It's a marker I try to keep in my sights.
- Crazy Salad by Nora Ephron. (It's bundled here with another book of her essays, Scribble, Scribble.) I was so lucky to come up as a writer when Didion and Ephron could be read in the pages of ordinary magazines. Ephron made me laugh where Didion made me think and by listening to them, I developed a strong muscle for smart and funny, with a woman's savvy underlining all.
- Dance Is a Contact Sport by Joseph Mazo. I envied his assignment: To live with the New York City Ballet, sit through every rehearsal, hang out backstage and see everything that went into a season, and a book-length manuscript to pour that into. He wound up writing about everything from dancers' injuries and set design to costumes and finance and choreography. The rehearsal chapters alone are worth reading. Descriptive and thoughtful, it was the book that showed me how one might dive deep into a complex topic, make it real for the reader, and revel in detail.
- Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers. I'd read this mystery novel dozens of times, unpacking its braided, coiled paths and clues. Then book critic Michael Dirda explained why I kept re-reading it: It's a book you read when you're thinking through a problem, just as the protagonist does. But what lovely, intricate solving this is, at one point described as letting a ball of string fall and tumble and then gathering it up again. This great writer juggles and weaves all those things and still keeps the ball in play, bringing this reader back, again and again.
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