25 Authors on the Best Books They’ve Ever Received

Authors Karin Slaughter, Robert Trachtenberg, Jenni Fagan, and more reveal the literary gifts they’ll never forget.

There’s no question that getting a book as a present is great no matter what the title or when it happens. But what about those books that we’re given that are so special they alter the course of our lives in some way or change the way we think about the world?

Every Saturday in December, Read it Forward will be rolling out reflections from some of our favorite authors about the book they received that has given them the most joy over the years. We hope that pausing to think about the life-changing magic of literature will be a wonderful compliment to your holiday season. Read 75 other authors who have answered this same question here and here.

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The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor

“A teacher gave me Flannery O’Connor’s short story collection in the ninth grade. I grew up in a small town where girls were taught to be polite and not laugh too loud or talk too much or show interest in anything that might scare away the boys. It was a revelation to read O’Connor’s work. Here was a woman from a small Georgia town (like me!) who in direct contravention to her sex and social class was writing the kinds of stories that I was not only interested in reading, but wanted to start writing myself. Her bravery and clarity of vision laid an early foundation for my own work.” —Karin Slaughter, author of The Kept Woman

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Letting Go by Philip Roth

“My dad gave me the novel Letting Go by Philip Roth. Dad read very little fiction—only one book of fiction a year. He was a political scientist, and he read dozens and dozens of non-fiction, academic books every year. But he always became enthusiastic about his one, annual book of fiction, which he would then recommend to everyone. He loved Roth. I like the novel, because it is Roth’s second—and unfamous—book; the writing shows his earnestness. He was looking for his voice then. I love the early novels of writers, for that same reason.” —Josh Barkan, author of the forthcoming story collection Mexico

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Fear of Flying by Erica Jong

“Knowing it is my favorite book, for my 34th birthday, a boyfriend once gave me a signed first edition of Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying.  Having always read tattered paperback versions, I had no idea the original was adorned with a spectacularly ornate cover that’s evocative of a Hieronymus Bosch.  I’m not a big collector of anything but no matter how often I pare down my belongings, I never get rid of this.  (Even though the boyfriend was long-ago lost to history, his accompanying birthday card remains tucked inside the book.)” —Lisa Napoli, author of Ray & Joan

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The French Laundry Cookbook by Thomas Keller

“In the winter of 2005, I received Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry Cookbook as a Christmas present.  It was during my early, struggling-writer years, when I was working as a chef to support my family (and my writing), and I often wondered if I’d ever make it as an author.  I remember sitting down on Christmas Day to read Keller’s book in my small apartment in Colorado.  I was inspired by his love for cooking, his artistry and creativity, and his deep dedication to his art.  The book was an inspiration to me to keep writing and pursuing my dream of publication, and I promised myself that when I published my first book, I would celebrate at one of his restaurants. Ten years later, I signed my contract for Children of the New World with Picador.  This past November, I invited my family to Per Se as a thank you for all their love and support throughout my years of writing, and I lifted a glass in thanks to Keller.” —Alexander Weinstein, author of Children of the New World

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Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

“My Mancunian grandmother, who left school at sixteen to work, was a very smart, insatiable reader. She was thrilled when I went to study English at university for three years, but still read far more than I did in that time. I remember thinking it might have been better, certainly cheaper, to enroll with her. She would mail me novels (always beautiful editions) and I would read the back, maybe a first line, and then pile them up beside my bed and feel guilty for not having the time amid weekly essays. My experience of ‘reading’ then could be more accurately described as ‘coloring.’ Extended procrastination followed by an intense period of highlighting, looking for key words and retaining nothing. Always in a post-midnight panic. Always, it felt like, incomprehensible lines of Chaucer. By the time it came to final exams, I’d read practically nothing post-1960 and so was pretty clueless in conversations about books other people had read.

It wasn’t until after I finished my degree and my grandmother was very sick that I finally discovered the meaning of ‘reading for pleasure,’ and got round to chipping away at the books she’d sent, most of which I’d politely pretended to have enjoyed in my thank-you calls. I began with a beautiful blue Virago edition of Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, and was electrified. As Rhys’ Antoinette and Jane Eyre’s Bertha began to fuse in my mind, connecting an old favorite novel with a new one, the initial electrical jolt turned into a mixture of rage, wonder, and self-reproach for having put the experience off for so long. I realized I’d probably only told her I “liked” it on the phone. I rang her again, admitted the lie, and told her I wanted to write my own. She laughed and said ‘I knew it. Good. Get on with it.’” —Olivia Sudjic, author of the forthcoming novel Sympathy

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When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. Kalanithi’s brave memoir chronicles in exquisite prose his brave battle with terminal illness, but rather than verge into depressing territory, it is a triumphant and inspiring read.  His words make one rethink our perception of time—to not only imagine what we might achieve in the future, but to cherish the beauty that surrounds us in the present.” —Alyson Richman, author of The Velvet Hours

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Genesis by Sebastião Salgado

“After our son Walker couch-surfed in Rio last year, we felt obliged to take in one of the Brazilian friends he met. She brought a copy of Sebastião Salgado’s beautiful but expensive book Genesis. We felt bad because she doesn’t have a lot of money and also because it is in Portuguese. However, 95% of the book consists of Salgado’s brilliant photographs, which need no translation. It seems that the people with the least often give the most.” —Robert Dawson, author of The Public Library: A Photographic Essay

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The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson edited by R.W. Franklin

“Early in our marriage my husband gave me The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson, edited by R.W. Franklin and published by Harvard University Press. What an amazement to see her poems in her own hand, intact in their radical, astonished beauty without the many editorial interventions made after her death which silently “corrected” and altered her grammar, idiosyncratic capitalization, punctuation, and much else.  I could even see the alternate word-choices she left on the page—that feeling of the mind in motion.  Recently, New Directions published The Gorgeous Nothings, which beautifully reproduces her late envelope writings and includes as well a photo of the small pencil she carried in the pocket of her dress—another book to treasure.” —Laurie Sheck, author of the forthcoming Island of the Mad

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A Girl Like I by Anita Loos

“This book was given to me as a sort of joke gift by a friend, but it ended up serving two purposes:

  1. It’s a great read from one of the true female pioneers in the movie and theater world. Witty, smart, giving the reader a glimpse into an era that’s long gone.
  2. The cover has enormous camp value, and always draws attention. So it works both intellectually and decoratively—not unlike some of the characters Loos wrote about!” —Robert Trachtenberg, author of Red-Blooded American Male

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The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

“On my eighth birthday my mother gave me a hardcover copy of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. The inscription read: ‘Here is the brother you said you wanted.’ I was having trouble in school—particularly reading—and a psychologist had recently tested me and informed my mother and the school that I was, in the parlance of the day, ‘retarded.’ My mother steadfastly refused to accept this, saying, ‘You just haven’t found anything you care enough about to read.’ It turned out I was dyslexic and perhaps mildly autistic. It took me months, and when I was done, I could read, and I had indeed been given a brother—two, in fact, and I have visited with them every year since my eighth birthday.” —James Anderson, author of The Never Open-Desert Diner 

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In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick

“Many years ago I was boarding a plane to Las Vegas, planning on doing two things I really enjoyed: gambling and reviewing All-You–Can-Eat buffets (I was young. Thankfully, I got both habits out of my system.). Also boarding was a large passenger sneezing and wheezing. Here was someone who desperately needed a bowl of chicken soup and a flight refund. While he squeezed his way down the aisle looking for his seat, everyone on the plane was thinking the same thing I was—I hope he doesn’t sit next to me. As he settled in next to me, I imagined the worst. Needless to say, by the end of the flight, we not only became friends who still keep in touch twenty years later, but he recommended a book which changed my life. During the flight, he sold me on In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick. 

I asked my mom for this book for Christmas and as my Vegas friend promised, the book was extraordinary. So much so, it convinced me to write my own. Up until that point, I wrote comedy pieces and columns in publications but never anything long form. Speed up to today—20 years later—In the Heart of the Sea has been adapted into a movie and now that I’ve finished my current project (Footnotes from the World’s Greatest Bookstores), I plan to publish that illustrated novel inspired by my favorite book. Called The Sea Below Us, it’s a black comedy about the missing Sir John Franklin. I sent a manuscript to Nathaniel Philbrick—whom I have also met and kept in touch with over the years—and thanked him for the inspiration his book provided. He loved the manuscript.” —Bob Eckstein, author of Footnotes from the World’s Greatest Bookstores

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Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

“My grandmother was a complicated woman—angry, loving, gossipy, and vibrant. She lived a country’s length away from me, and we were never close, even though I was named after her. The truth is, her mercurial moods scared me a little. One Christmas morning when I was 10 or so, I unwrapped a heavy package and discovered a beautiful hardcover book complete with illustrations: Little Women. On the inside was my grandmother’s inscription in handwriting as bold as she was: For Sarah, with love. I devoured the book that day, then read it again and again. When I was immersed in its pages, I felt more connected to my grandmother than I ever had before; it was as if she truly saw me as the shy, book-loving girl I was, instead of the confident, outspoken one she perhaps wanted me to be. My grandmother died long ago, but I still have the worn, beloved copy of the novel she gave me, with her faded handwriting gracing the opening page. I cherish it still.” —Sarah Pekkanen, author of The Perfect Neighbors

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Boy Wonder by James Robert Baker

Back in high school, my best friend gave me a tattered paperback of Boy Wonder by the late/great James Robert Baker. We’d been into making movies, writing stories, and living imaginatively since kindergarten, and this gonzo, out-of-print novel about a young-madman-turned-Hollywood-super-producer had it all. Boy Wonder is the perfect summer read, a fount of crazed inspiration, laugh-out-loud funny, and to this day, one of the most seminal reading experiences I’ve had.” —Chris Sharp, author of Cold Counsel

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Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little and The Trumpet of the Swan by E. B. White

“When I was a kid, my step-dad, who raised me, used to buy me books as Christmas gifts. He was an intellectual from another era, and believed that some kind of moral salvation lay in a combination of books, public education, and paying as much taxes as you could. When I was in sixth grade, he bought me the trilogy of children’s books by E.B. White, which included Trumpet of the SwanCharlotte’s Web, and Stuart Little. The same year, I got a satin comforter from my mom, and I remember lying in my antique brass bed, propped up on those luxurious new pillows, and going on the wild rides of these stories; it seems like I didn’t leave my bed until I’d finished all three. I’d always liked to read, but it was the experience of binging on those three children’s books that really showed me what reading did to me, and for me—the way reading made me feel calm and inspired before I knew what those words meant—and that I was, in my heart, a reader, which really, then, was the beginning of it all, since writers are just readers who need a job.” —Carolynn Carreño, author of the forthcoming cookbook Bowls of Plenty

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It by Stephen King

“The best book I ever received as a present was It by Stephen King for my 15th birthday. I was already a fan of Stephen King’s novels and had been anxiously awaiting the release of It. My step-dad had it wrapped and waiting for me the day it came out, with a hand-written note inside. The book was as amazing as I’d anticipated. But it’s the best book I’ve ever received because it marked the beginning of a tradition. Every birthday after that, my step-dad gave me a book. Some years it was Stephen King’s latest, some years it was another author. The tradition continued for a quarter century, until my step-dad passed away a few years ago. I still miss seeing a brightly wrapped book in amongst the other birthday gifts. And I still have that original, hard cover copy of It.” —Amy Engel, author of the forthcoming novel The Roanoke Girls

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The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

“In fifth grade, I received The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster and spent the next three days wrapped up in the pages, unable to put it down. It was the first book that grabbed hold of me and didn’t let go. When I was a fifth grade teacher, I would read it aloud to my students every year and watch as the story of Milo and the mysterious Tollbooth grabbed them the way it grabbed me when I was that age. I still have that same weather-worn copy on my book shelf and look forward to the day I can hand it off to my son. —Katie Ganshert, author of The Art of Losing Yourself and the forthcoming Life After

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The Woman Lit by Fireflies by Jim Harrison

“In 1993, a good friend of mine who had recently moved to Livingston, Montana introduced me to Jim Harrison. He had flown to Wisconsin to join me for a weekend of waterfowl hunting and brought with him Harrison’s The Woman Lit by Fireflies, which he was convinced I’d like. I read the book the following week and felt it had cast a spell on me. I called my friend and thanked him profusely for introducing me to Harrison. Then I read everything else Harrison had written, including his poetry (Harrison considered himself, first and foremost a poet), which I found as evocative as his novellas and novels. I especially admired Harrison’s attention to the details of a landscape. Harrison, in turn, led me to a group of Western writers—Thomas McGuane, William Kittredge, Ivan Doig, and Cormac McCarthy, to name only a few—who would have a profound effect on my writing.” —Jim Campbell, author of Braving It

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The Secret World of Og by Pierre Berton

“The best book I’ve ever received came from my sister. It was a special edition of The Secret World of Og, by Pierre Berton, a book our mother had read to my sister, brother and I one summer when we were children. The book is about four children who discover a secret passageway in their playhouse floor, leading to an underground world, Og. I must have dreamt about the story each night after she read it to us, because my memories of the book are as vivid and three-dimensional as if I had been one of the children in the story. My own children have read the edition my sister gave me, and they loved it, too. At our cottage, the access to the basement is through a door in the floor; it reminded my children and I so much of the book that we named the crawl space “Og.” One day, I hope to read this book to my grandchildren.” —Julie Lawson Timmer, author of Untethered

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The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene

“I’m not sure it was a present but it was certainly given to me, and it’s had a lasting impact on my writing life. It was Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter. I was around 14, we were up on Cape Cod for a few weeks over the summer, and a librarian at this tiny library saw me rummaging through the paperback bin. She had seen what I had been reading and she reached in and took out the Greene. And then she said, ‘Keep it, if you like it.’ I still have it. It has a rubber band around the cover.” —Jonathan Rabb, author of Among the Living

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A Prayer for the Dying by Jack Higgins

“When I was a kid, my dad read all the time, mostly westerns and thrillers. I was fascinated by the books, even though I knew they were too ‘adult’ for me, that I wasn’t quite ready to read them. When I turned fourteen, my dad gave me a birthday gift—a book called A Prayer for the Dying by the great Jack Higgins. It was a concise, powerful page-turner about a world-weary IRA hitman trying to do the right thing. I loved the characters and the plot, plus it was set in Ireland, where my dad’s family emigrated from. That book sent me down the road to reading more and more thrillers. And then eventually writing them. I still have that now battered paperback and re-read it from time to time just to feel connected to my dad.” —David Bell, Since She Went Away

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The Adventures of the Wishing-Chair by Enid Blyton

“When I was a little girl, someone gave me a copy of a book called The Adventures of the Wishing-Chair. The chair grew wings and could fly away to other worlds. I started using books for that very purpose from a really early age. Books helped me to endure, learn, navigate, believe, imagine and hope. It also made me realize that the world I was growing up in was not the only one out there and I could use words as wings in my own way too. I still have a really old copy of it although I haven’t read it in decades.” —Jenni Fagan, author of The Sunlight Pilgrims

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Diet for a Small Planet by Francis Moore Lappé

“I moved off-campus after my sophomore year in college and had to feed myself. My quasi-hippie roommate gave me a copy of Francis Moore Lappé’s Diet for a Small Planet, permanently changing how I thought about food and introducing selfish, cloistered little me to the notion of social responsibility. I became a vegetarian, learned to bake bread, and started a garden. My daughters’ friends used to call me Mrs. Nutritious—or Martha—and I loved it. Now, if I’m not writing, I’m either growing plants or cooking them. That slim volume revolutionized my life.” —Sonja Yoerg, author of All The Best People

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The Chronicles of Robin Hood by Rosemary Sutcliff

“The most memorable book present in my life has to be Rosemary Sutcliffe’s marvelous The Chronicles of Robin Hood.  My parents bought it for my seventh birthday to wean me off James Bond, gunfighters and martial arts.  It didn’t succeed, but it was the first book that moved be enough to make me cry.” —Matthew Carr, author of The Devils of Cardona

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Whitman Illuminated: Song of Myself by Walt Whitman and illustrated by Allen Crawford

“My copy of Whitman Illuminated: Song of Myself, an illustrated beauty of a book by Allen Crawford, which exquisitely spreads out Whitman’s famous Leaves of Grass poem over 234 pages. Its cloth-bound body was a gift from a friend who had been staying in Paris, and it bears a stamp from the famous Shakespeare and Company bookstore situated on the Left Bank. The friend is a dear one who I barely see given our current geolocations, but the sort where years can pass and you can still converse as if it were yesterday.” —Ella Frances Sanders, author of The Illustrated Book of Sayings: Curious Expressions from Around the World

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Chloe Plus Olivia: An Anthology of Lesbian Literature from the 17th Century to the Present by Lillian Faderman

“On Christmas of 1994, I was fifteen and had just come out to my family. I was also an aspiring writer who adored Virginia Woolf. I put Chloe Plus Olivia on my Christmas list, not expecting anyone to actually seek out an anthology of lesbian literature and buy it for me. But my dad did: he made a special trip to the University Bookstore in Seattle; he wrapped it and put it under the tree for me. I devoured the book, took it to college with me years later, then moved into my first apartment with it when I was twenty. It’s long gone now (lost in another move), but I still remember it fondly as a formative literary text, and as a sign that my dad loved and supported me without hesitation.” —Alexis M. Smith, author of Marrow Island


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About Abbe Wright

Abbe Wright

ABBE WRIGHT is the Editor of Read It Forward. As a kid, she used to get in trouble at summer camp for using a flashlight to read inside her sleeping bag after lights out, but these days, she lives in Brooklyn, where nobody minds if she stays up late reading. She has written for Glamour, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Cut and tweets about books (and The Bachelor) at @abbewright.

  • Belvane

    Please correct the spelling error above: Reece –> Rhys.

    • Georgia Peach

      What spelling error do you speak of? The author of “The Wide Sargasso Sea” is Rhys.

  • AbbysBiggestFan

    Great article. I love reader what has inspired writers to write or just the books that they enjoy.

  • julietaube

    mine would be A Wrinkle in Time.

  • Triss Finkelman Stein

    All of this was a wonderful read, but James Anderson’s piece about Tom Sawyer brought tears to my eyes.

    Matthew Carr, did you ever read any or Rosemary Sucliff’s other books? She was one of the great writers of historical fiction, mostly for older children. Some are quite powerful read as aduts too.

  • Jeanne

    I still can’t look at the cover of Charlotte’s Web without getting tears in my eyes. The selflessness of the characters in that book remind me that the goodness we extend to all living creatures will get us through anything.

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