Everyone should read. No, I'm not saying that as an author, or even as a bookworm, I'm saying that as a human. Stories are what make us dream and grow, what take us away from daily stress, what builds our imaginations. Something John Waters has said resonates with me: "If you go home with someone and they don't have books, don't fuck 'em!"

Books shape us every bit as much as experience. What follows in short is a list of the books I feel have made me who I am:

The Red Badge Of Courage

Stephen Crane

It's About: A young man in the American Civil War who flees from the battlefield. His shame over his cowardice makes him desire a wound- a "red badge of courage" and so he returns to the battlefield.

I read this in secret when I was 5 years old. I have an older brother and my father forced him to read this to teach him about "being a man." Always a jealous little sister I stole it from him and read it in one night. It as the first time I fell head over heels in love with the written word. The writing style is rough but the story is a timeless tale of how we define the qualities in ourselves. It not only taught me how we must settle our self-image in our minds and follow through with our actions, it also birthed my strong love for the Civil War.

The Thin Man

Dashiell Hammett

It's About: Nick Charles, retired PI is on vacation in New York when an old friend goes missing. On the hunt for the scientists Nick runs parallel to the police, clashes with the mob, and if you read between the lines, he and his alcoholic wife Nora swing their way through all the young eligibles in town.

I was named for Nora Charles so I was bound to read this story, and once I did I knew that hardboiled detectives and noir were my genre. It doesn't come right out and say it, but Nick & Nora are swingers, and as a girl raised in a hippie commune of free love, swinging, and polyamory, all the other books, movies, TV shows I digested were about nuclear families, something that has vaguely stymied me. Here were real people with real problems in a dark world being sucked into a vortex as they raced to solve a mystery. To this day I think of Hammett as a kind of soul mate more akin to a kindred spirit, and I dedicated my first fiction novel to him. Hammett showed me sometimes the best writing comes from modeling a character on yourself and your own life- so you can focus on the damn story.

Crystal

Walter Dean Myers

It's About: An attractive young woman in 1980's New York gets swept up in the world of high fashion modelling, forcing her to question her dreams and ultimately her identity when she must choose between a normal life and a chance to burn out brightly.

This Young Adult book came out in 1987 and I read it when I was 8. It's a very thinly veiled allegory about being forced to grow up too fast. I had a childhood that required me to be an adult way too soon, and unlike Crystal, I didn't have a choice to change that and resume being a kid. While ultimately Crystal makes a choice that is mature and sane, this book showed me you have to remember you have options. If life gives you lemons, make lemonade, sell them on the black market, learn to juggle them, or squirt lemon juice in someone's eye. Never forget we always have a choice. I still have my first edition and read it time to time though I am now nearly twice the age of Crystal. This was the first book I'd ever read that showed me deep messages could hide behind pop culture.

Neuromancer

William Gibson

It's About: The book that started Cyberpunk, it's a futuristic tale of a netrunner kicked out of the system, and tempted back with a job from a mysterious employer, guarded by a Razor Girl- a female cybernetic Samurai.

I read this after stealing it from an honorary uncle. The disjointed prose is a bit tough to digest but it's the imagining of a world never before dreamed. If you enjoyed Hackers, The Matrix...you owe it to this novel. It resonated with me in that the future envisioned has the rise of corporatocracy. Raised by hippies, I have feared this, and day by day it's coming to pass. As a writer this book showed me just how completely immersed into a new world a writer could get, and how a strong story can transcend frankly juvenile prose. As a reader this book made me just a wee bit obsessed with becoming a Samurai. I'm 2/3s of the way there.

How To Read A Book

Mortimer J. Adler & Charles Van Dorne

It's About: How to read a book...properly. The Basis of the "Great Books" Program this book is in 4 parts showing you how to select a book, actively read it, critically analyze it, and how to digest it. 

The essential guide for any reader  of the classics I highly recommend it. You may think you know how to read a book, but Adler's here to school you. Ideally read at the start of high school the application of the techniques will blow away all future English teachers. Read it any age though, and learn how to grasp the deeper meanings and separate characters, plot, conflict, and prose. When you get into your 30's and above and your friends start up book groups and often discuss literature this will help you keep your edge.
  

Song of Solomon

Toni Morrison

It's About: The life of a young man, "Milkman," dealing with his dysfunctional family in denial of their slave heritage, chasing down the family history, and learning what true freedom means.

It's hard to say why this resonates so deeply with me. Perhaps because due to my Irish ancestry, like Milkman, my ancestors came to this country in chains. I too have tracked down the family history and the story of how they escaped is fascinating, dark, and compelling. I someday hope to publish it. Morrison's prose is undeniably beautiful, liquid, and deep. Her word choice is so deliberate and beautiful it's orgasmic. The story is heartbreaking and the question of what makes us free is complex and confronted in every scene. Haunting imagery comes in every detail, from Milkman's girlfriend's choice of perfume to his sister's loss of her virginity, and from the first scene we come full circle in the last. I dare you to read this and not cry, but I dare you to read it and forget more so: no book will make you better question just what your life is about.

Guilty Pleasures

Laurell K. Hamilton

It's About: A necromancer in an alternative timeline lives in a world of things that go bump in the night, mainly vampires and werewolves. When she's hired by the vsampires she ends up going head to head with the Master of The City in modern supernatural noir splendor.

This was the first modern noir I'd ever read, and in my opinion gave birth the urban fantasy genre. If you enjoy Sookie Stackhouse or Rachel Morgan, you have Hamilton to thank. This is the first in a series and after about 7 or 8 books it basically becomes absurd porn, panned by critics and readers, but the first books (slim enough to be 1/3 as wide as the later) are sharp, tight, dark, and sensual without being sexual. This struck me as the voice of a woman with purpose, and one of the few female-written novels I'd ever read where getting a boyfriend/husband was not the entire point of a woman's life. Kicking ass and never compromising your ideals while being open to learn from your mistakes...that's how Anita Blake lives her life...or did for the first few books.

A Tale Of Two Cities

Charles Dickens

It's About: Don't let your English teacher fool you, it's the story of alcoholic lawyer Sydney Carton in love with the capricious idiot Lucie, who chooses Charles Darnay for a husband, Carton's doppelganger and a successful French former aristocrat. Their story of love, honor, and ethics plays out against the French Revolution's Rein Of Terror.

Dickens was a crazy bastard with OCD and strange phobias, and to my knowledge he never wrote a single female character that wasn't psychotic or moronic, and they were always bitches. As a feminist I'm always a little horrified by just how much I love "The Sparkler of Albion." This novel is thick in terms of prose, but well-structured, the shifting narrative is gorgeous, the perfect details of settings in the large scale clash with the often-disjointed in the immediate, spurring you on, but always highlighting the characters. As a writer I use Dickensian style for modeling my characters.

As a reader...this story is about love. *spoiler* (do I even need to write that for a book published  in 1859?) Darnay is vapid but perfect, so Lucie marries him despite Carton's deep love for her. Darnay is taken to be executed and Carton, out of love for the twit Lucie, takes his place under the guillotine so they can escape and live happily ever after. I've always identified with Carton, for I feel I have too often let my flaws define me, but underneath it all I'm a good person, often overlooked because of my flaws. I have always fantasized of Lucie getting fat and lazy, nagging Darnay to death because she realizes she chose the wrong man. Bitch.


The Great Gatsby

F. Scott Fitzgerald

It's About: Nick Carraway moves to NYC and meets his mysterious neighbor Jay Gatsby. Gatsby is deeply in love with Nick's cousin Daisy who is married to your typical frat-boy jock douche of the 20's, and Daisy tries to get Nick to date her friend Jordan Baker. The story of unrequited love, betrayal, and death plays out against the Jazz Age. Again, read this without crying, I dare you.

I love this novel so much I have the last 3 lines tattooed on my left arm (from the 3rd printing, the one I read that is now disregarded):

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter - tomorrow we will run faster, stretch our arms further... And one fine morning -

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past


In those 3 lines I feel the nature of this beautiful novel is revealed. Desire is what drives us, and ultimately destroys us. When I read that it instantly became part of my personal philosophy. So much so I have it permanently on my body. Yes, when I'm 80, I want it there, so kids can ask me about it and I can tell them the magical story of love, loss, and betrayal that is The Great Gatsby. The best novels deal with love and identity, and this novel does both. If you can read this and still think hopeless, unrequited love is romantic, then I am sorry, for Disney & romance novels have ruined you, my friend.

The Essential Epicurus

Epicurus (Translated by Eugene O'Connor)

It's About: Epicurus, the Greek philosopher who founded the precursor to hedonism and was arguably the first wide-spread atheist. This contains his doctrines and letters, and sadly has some Vatican shit mixed in. What can you expect with an Irish translator?

If you ask me what my philosophy is, I'll tell you I'm an Epicurean with Carlinist leanings, as in George Carlin. I do dash in a bit of Zen Buddhism and a little Nietzsche, but at the base is Epicurus. His golden maxims are my rules for living, ethical hedonism. Let everything you do be an act of joy, and if it's not, leave it in the past and look to the future. I'm by nature a realist but embracing this philosophy has allowed me a glimpse into the bright, cheery life optimists lead. Only with better food, drink, friends, and sex.

From The Dust Returned

Ray Bradbury

It's About: A family gathering of supernaturals as different from one another as the Munsters or Addam's Family. It'd a fix-up novel, meaning a novel born of earlier short stories (centering around the ghost family of the Elliots).

The prose is bare-bones, descriptions are either often lacking or run into complete allegory and simile, forcing you to fill in the gaps yourself, and this is the definition of active reading. It's beautiful, ludicrous, and minimalist, a truly refreshing read. As a writer Bradbury is the man I take my cues from in terms of characters of the supernatural, and his style of expanding and working on previous stories is something I have adopted as well. I love this man so much you'll see it in my upcoming Something Wicked series. All the titles (including the series title) are nods to the works of his I love, with a few Vincent Price movies also referenced. Classic horror was about tension and setting, none of this torture-porn crap.

There you have it, the long list of the books that changed my life. You'll find nods to their style, ideas, and principles in my own writing, and most certainly when talking to me. What are your pivotal books?