The Executioner's Song, by Norman Mailer
I have not found a better novel about America (sorry, F. Scott) than this epic death march of a book, in which Mailer evokes real-life events from Gary Gilmore's seventies killing spree and subsequent imprisonment with precise characters who drift through the plot like dazed car-crash survivors. Best of all, Mailer does it with simple, bare-knuckled prose.
The Wasteland, by T.S. Eliot
Before I discovered Sylvia Plath, Frank O'Hara, or Robert Lowell, I found The Wasteland. Perhaps it was a bit creepy for a 12-year-old boy to walk around his suburban Cincinnati house wearing a blanket as a cape, reciting passages like "they called me the hyacinth girl" and "so many I had not thought death had undone so many." But for me as a kid, this poem was like a biblical text.
Ten Little Indians, by Agatha Christie
What really got me to fall in love with books as a kid was Agatha Christie. For a while her murder mysteries were all I ever read—my favorites involving detective Hercule Poirot. But none took me down a hole like this one, which tracks 10 characters trapped on an island getting picked off one by one by a criminal mastermind. A professor once told me there are two kinds of readers—those who love murder mysteries and those who love war books. I'm definitely in the first camp, thanks to Agatha.
A Book of Common Prayer, by Joan Didion
In my late teens, Joan Didion's nonfiction made me rethink my belief that great fiction always trumped great essays. But her novels are damn good too. Play It as It Lays deserves the hype, but this less remembered work—about a middle-aged American woman waiting in an airport in a Central American country about to tip into revolutionary chaos—feels even more dangerous and urgent. I think Didion's gorgeous, pickax prose style inspired my entire generation of want-to-be-serious writers.
Dispatches, by Michael Herr
I accidentally came across this Vietnam War correspondent's memoir in a secondhand bookshop not long after I turned 30. It worked on me the way Thucydides must have worked on the ancient Greeks. Herr's up-close, on-the-battlefield descriptions of what actually went down in Vietnam are so cool, so savage, and so horrifying. If you don't know it, stop reading this right now (thank God this is the last sentence) and go get it.
The 5 Books That Made Christopher Bollen Want to Be a Writer
The 35-year-old first-time novelist shares the five books that made him want to write.
Christopher Bollen has gotten raves for his debut, Lightning People, which explores the existential dread of New York City after September 11. Here, the 35-year-old first-time novelist shares the five books that made him want to write.