book recs

Foundational Reading: 10 Books That Stayed with You Over Time

I take something away from almost every book I read, but some have become part of my DNA. Here, in no particular order, are ten books that have changed how I think about life in some way.

The Gift of Fear, Gavin DeBecker

DeBecker does threat evaluation and security for celebrities and rich people, but his advice is valuable for everyone, especially women. If you think you’re in danger, you probably are, and you should listen to that voice telling you to get the hell out of there.

A Girl Named Zippy, by Haven Kimmel

This delightful memoir made me laugh so hard I cried, when it wasn’t alternating with breaking my heart. It’s a beautiful lesson in voice and storytelling.

Christie’s classic caper has been retold many times.

And Then There Were None, Agatha Christie


A masterwork in misdirection from one of the finest in the biz. I couldn’t believe it when this was assigned reading for one of my high-school classes. It was an acknowledgment that entertaining books could be worthy of serious study too!

The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy

A transporting tale that’s not about small things at all; it’s about family and identity and the death of dreams, all in such evocative language that I could smell each scene.

Ladykiller, Ed McBain

This fast-moving story takes place in one day, in which the detectives of the 87th Precinct receive a message that says, “I will kill The Lady tonight at eight. What can you do about it?” McBain’s mysteries always have really satisfying answers, and this one is one of the best.

The Stranger Beside Me, Ann Rule

You could not make this story up and be believed. A true-crime writer gets assigned to do a book on an ongoing series of murders, only to discover the culprit is her friend Ted. Ted Bundy is an archetypal serial killer at this point, and Rule provides one of the most intimate portraits of the man. I get something new from this book each time I read it.

 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl

This book was one of my first loves. I think I read it twenty times in fourth grade alone, and not just because it has chocolate in the title. I loved the imagination of the Chocolate Factory and crazy Mr. Wonka, but I think I loved the part where the nasty, self-absorbed kids got what was coming to them even more. Fiction—the only place where one can truly get what one deserves.

The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner

I needed to buy a Cliff Notes explainer to help me understand this novel the first time I read it, but after I caught on, I was blown away by the way the story of the family is interwoven through the various voices of its members.

Consciousness Explained, Daniel Dennett

What an audacious title! Here is one of the greatest mysteries of the universe—where did consciousness come from? Dennett gives it his best educated guess in this highly readable philosophical tour-de-force.

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee

This was another revelation assigned school reading did not have to be about torturous subjects that a fourteen-year-old girl could not relate to on any level. I grew up in an entirely white environment, and this book was one of my first exposures to the idea that America’s racial history is painful and ugly. Scout’s narration made that accessible to me at the time. These days, I try to get my stories about USA race relations from authors of color, but To Kill a Mockingbird was an initial shove in the right direction.

I always need recommendations for new books to read! What’s a book that has stayed with you over time?

2 Responses to “Foundational Reading: 10 Books That Stayed with You Over Time”

  1. Suzanne Magnuson

    This is a great and worthy idea, so I’m going to do what you did and give you 10 as well. In no order.

    Lucifer’s Hammer – Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
    Yeah, you’ve seen the asteroid hits the earth movies, but this one is a comet and it destroys the earth and it’s filled with accurate science. Not to mention great characters of all backgrounds. Everybody from astronauts for NASA to a local postal carrier gets a hero turn.

    The Years of Rice and Salt – Kim Stanley Robinson
    What if the Bubonic Plague of 580 A.D. wiped out 90% of Europe. This is what happens when non-European cultures are the world leaders. The bits about the discovery of America alone are worth reading it for.

    The Year of the Unicorn – by Andre Norton
    Simultaneously a great fantasy adventure story and one of the best romances I’ve ever read.

    Shogun – James Clavell
    A fictionalized retelling of the rise of the Tokugawa Shogunate with a European narrator. It’s just a compelling read all the way around.

    Eleanor of Acquitaine and the Four Kings – Amy Kelly
    This is a straight up history book that reads like a novel. One of the most fascinating and influential human beings who ever lived. Wife of two kings – Louis and Henry II, mother of two – Richard the Lionheart and John, she fought on Crusade and owned more land than the King of France and invented Courtly Love as we know it.

    The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle
    I saw a lecture by Harlan Ellison once where he said he recommends Doyle to everyone on the principal that it teaches you to apply logic to situations and to look for motives. If you learn Holmes’ methods, you’ll never be fooled again. He wasn’t wrong.

    Persuasion – Jane Austen
    The subtlety of the writing and characterization here can’t be overstated. You know these people, with their petty concerns and narrow vision of life.

    Founding Brothers – by Joseph J. Ellis
    Another real history book that reads like a gripping novel. It is amazing how much of our government was hashed out at Thomas Jefferson’s dinner table.

    The Winter King/Excalibur/Enemy of God – Bernard Cornwell
    T.H.White is great. Mary Stewart is good. These are far, far better than either. And the battle scenes are the best ever.

    The Devil in the White City – Erik Larson
    H.H. Holmes. It doesn’t get creepier or more amazing real life serial killer than that. This book is just superb in every way. And the stuff about the World’s Fair is just as compelling as Holmes’ plotting.

    • Joanna Schaffhausen

      These are great picks! I totally agree that Sherlock Holmes is foundational, especially for those of us in mystery! Love Jane Austen’s work for its witty dialogue and sharp social commentary. I’ve also read Devil in the White City, and I agree, it’s excellent!


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