25 Books That Shaped These Authors

From Agatha Christie to Tolkien to Elizabeth Gilbert and Seamus Heaney, 25 authors reveal the books they received as gifts that went on to affect their own writing.

Sometimes gift-givers know us better than we know ourselves, and in the cases of these 25 authors, they were given books as presents that they’ve hung on to ever since. Whether the subject matter piqued their curiosity, or the cover drew them in, or the words encouraged them to write their own, these narratives remain seminal in the minds of some of today’s best authors. Take a moment to review their reflections, then read 75 other authors who have answered this same question here, here, and here.

The Sandman by Neil Gaiman

“I am going to have to say The Sandman, by Neil Gaiman. I was given the first volume ‘Preludes & Nocturnes’ when I was around 13 as a birthday present and just thought it was the coolest. It was the first serious, adult graphic novel I read and the storytelling and the art really cemented me wanting to pursue art as a career. All throughout high school, I would save up allowances and made sure I got good grades so I could purchase the next volume (there was a total of ten and, like most art books, they were expensive). I still have all of the books over ten years later. I took them to college with me and also when I moved across the country. They remind me of my silly goth phase, but also the time and hard work that went into getting the whole set. There are certain special books that have a big hand in shaping who you become as an adult, and those you end up hanging onto forever.” —Rachel Ignotofsky, author of Women in Science

The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, given to me by my Dad when I was twelve. Although it was the last of Conan Doyle’s books about the legendary detective, it was the first one I read, and it made me a devoted Holmes fan for life.” — Rick Beyer, co-author of The Ghost Army of World War II

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Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi

“Oddly, I don’t receive many books as presents. I read a lot, so perhaps people worry about giving me something I’ve already read, although that’s silly. The best book present I’ve ever received was the wonderful cookbook Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi. I cook from it constantly; everything in it is utterly delicious. Better yet, every time I do so, I think of the people who gave it to me—my parents, who live on the other side of the world. Since then I’ve started giving people cookbooks, too. Every time they’re opened and cooked from, it’s a way of waving at the people you love.” —Alex George, author of the forthcoming novel Setting Free the Kites

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

“When I was ten years old, I received a copy of The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan and it completely changed my life. I was a scrawny little brown kid in the middle of Oklahoma and I was used to reading books that featured white characters whose lives were impossibly different than mine. Granted, I wasn’t a middle-aged Asian American woman either, but for the first time, I encountered a story that talked about diaspora, that spoke to the intergenerational divide that comes with immigration. I had gotten so used to living two distinct lives—Arabic-speaking Hala at home; shy, polite Holly at school—that it was invigorating to have someone normalize that experience for me. It felt like someone had whispered in my ear, ‘Me, too.’” —Hala Alyan, author of the forthcoming debut novel, Salt Houses

Beowulf, translated by Seamus Haney

“I was nine when Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf came out, and I lusted after it. I didn’t know what Beowulf was and I’d never read any of Heaney’s verse, but the cover had a knight on it and I wanted to be a knight and so I had to have it. I said as much to my mom. She was supportive in all things and delighted by my curiosity, but cautioned that it wouldn’t be easy going. She asked whether I would actually read it. I was cast down, because when put to it I wasn’t sure that I would. But a few weeks later she handed me a present wrapped in newsprint. Inside was Heaney’s Beowulf. I still remember the thrill of seeing the knight’s head emerge from the brightly colored Sunday comics. It was a validation, a vote of confidence—it was a symbol of my mom’s respect for me. Her confidence in me bolstered my own. I was determined to read it through, and I did. I didn’t understand it all, but I understood enough to be swept up in the adventure and to revel in the language. It was the first time in my life I’d done something ‘literary,’ and I was hooked.” —Forrest Leo, author of The Gentleman

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling

“My grandmother was a great lover of books, a former teacher and a Jane Austen fanatic, and I remember very vividly her giving me a copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. I think this was early 1999, a rainy spring day when she was visiting us in Vancouver. It was starting to catch on in Britain, and had just made its way to Canada. A local bookstore recommended it to her, and she picked up a copy for me. I was obsessed from the first page, of course. But the best part is that it was a gift for no reason—which was exactly, wonderfully like my grandmother.” —Anna Pitoniak, author of the forthcoming novel The Futures

Five on a Treasure Island by Enid Blyton

“I have received so many amazing books as gifts in my life, but the very best ever was Five on a Treasure Island, the first title in The Famous Five series, by the brilliant and legendary author, Enid Blyton. It is a mystery collection for children, and as a little girl, I devoured each one, again and again. I have loved suspense and secrets for as long as I can remember, and was thrilled to navigate through Ms. Blyton’s clever storytelling, collecting evidence and revelations, while trying to solve the mysteries at the center. I easily connected with her masterfully drawn characters, and the combination of getting involved with these figures, while being swept up and captivated by the plotting opened up the whole universe of books for me and inspired my impassioned love of reading. I tore through this series, devouring one volume after another.  Getting the next was always an exciting event!” —Sara Blaedel, author of The Killing Forest

And Ladies of the Club by Helen Hooven Santmyer

“For Christmas of my senior year, my college roommate gave me a copy of Helen Hooven Santmyer’s And Ladies of the Club.  I’ve always loved really thick books—the thicker the better—and I dutifully brought it home with me over the long winter break.  My parents lived in the Netherlands at the time and we’d planned a ski trip to Switzerland over the holidays.  However, I was so obsessed by that book that I’d do one morning ski run and spend the rest of the day reading and eating Toblerone chocolate bars by the lobby fire.  My father was furious with me, but I still remember it as being one of the best vacations ever.” —Karen White, author of the forthcoming novel The Guests on South Battery

Santa Steps Out by Robert Devereaux

“There is…a book.  It is an experience. It’s one of the books I hold up as proof that the five-star system doesn’t work, because it’s a book that is either your kind of thing or isn’t, and if it isn’t your kind of thing, all the five-star reviews in the world won’t make you like it, and vice-versa. It is called Santa Steps Out, and it is, for better or for worse, 300+ pages of Santa Claus having vast amounts of sex. Yes, I am aware of what that sounds like, and please realize, we all have that one weird book we adore, I am not saying ‘go out and buy this book right now,’ okay?  But I love it—in all its weird erotic horror and inappropriate symbolism and yeah.

The people who run Borderlands Books in San Francisco, California are aware of my love for this weird, inappropriate book. A few years ago, they acquired a collection of rare science fiction and horror novels, and I thought hey, why not take a chance? I asked them whether the collection had included a copy of the original signed hardback edition of Santa Steps Out.

It had. They had already pulled it aside as a holiday gift for me. Because they knew. And that is the best, most thoughtful book I have ever received as a holiday gift.” —Seanan McGuire, author of Every Heart a Doorway

The Treasury of American Short Stories selected by Nancy Sullivan

“This one is a complete no-brainer for me. During my sophomore year of college, after I’d started writing fiction, my parents gave me a book for Christmas called The Treasury of American Short Stories. Although I probably didn’t understand it at the time, I now appreciate that that was their way of encouraging me to write. While I had recently started writing short stories, I must admit that I’d read very few of them other than Salinger’s Nine Stories. As I recall, I spent most of Christmas Day on the couch in the living room at my parents’ house, working my way through the collection. The next day, too.  And I imagine that I had my mouth open in amazement as I read some of the most wonderful short stories by writers I was discovering for the first time. Many years later, I can still tell you some of them. Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery.’ Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Welcome to the Monkey House.’ Flannery O’Connor’s ‘Parker’s Back.’ Truman Capote’s ‘Children on Their Birthdays.’ Dorothy Parker’s ‘You Were Perfectly Fine.’ John O’Hara’s ‘One for the Road.’ There were many others by Ann Beattie, Woody Allen, John Hawkes, Saul Bellow, Joyce Carol Oates, Ralph Ellison, etc. Best. Christmas. Present. Ever.” —Michael Kun, co-author of We Are Still Tornadoes

Death on the Nile: A Hercule Poirot Mystery by Agatha Christie

“The best book I ever received as a gift was Death on the Nile. It was my very first Agatha Christie, and my grandmother gave it to me with the note, ‘I think you’ll like this…’ I was ten, and that book was my transition from the Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden and Sherlock Holmes stories of my childhood to proper ‘grown-up’ mysteries. No writer has had as great of an influence on my work than Agatha Christie, and it all started with that one little paperback at Christmas.” —Deanna Raybourn, A Perilous Undertaking

The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien

“When I was in middle school, my parents bought me a copy of The Hobbit. Because my parents thought I would like it, I, being a stubborn kid, set it aside and read something else. A few weeks later I was listening to the radio late at night under the covers and stumbled on a dramatization of a story about a group of dwarves who had been captured by giant spiders. I had no idea what I was listening to, but I was mesmerized. When the episode was over, the announcer informed me I had been listening to the BBC radio version of The Hobbit. The next day I started reading the book and loved it. We lived in a fairly isolated house in the mountains during the summer, and most of my teenage summers began by re-reading The Hobbit. Though I would eventually go on to read The Lord of the Rings and other fantasy works, nothing would ever quite match the magic of going on that journey with Bilbo Baggins every year. I loved the world Tolkien had created but I also loved the fact that Bilbo was something of a loner—the sole hobbit on a journey with dwarves. As a middle child who spent a lot of his summers wandering in the forest, I could relate.” —Charlie Lovett, author of The Further Adventures of Ebenezer Scrooge and the forthcoming The Lost Book of the Grail

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

“I adore the ongoing, beloved experience of socially transmitted literature: the moment a dog-eared copy of something is pulled from a friend’s purse, knapsack or back pocket. You have to read this, they always say, shoving it in your hands, it is so _____. And so of course you do, always, almost immediately; open it up on the train, or while you’re cooking dinner, and then forty pages later you send the first text, and your world gets bigger. ALMAAAAAA GET IT GIRL, I texted my friend an hour into The Signature of All Things, prompting a thirty-text exchange about that damn binding closet. Whenever somebody presses a book they’ve just read into my hands, I feel loved.” —Barbara Bourland, author of the forthcoming novel I’ll Eat When I’m Dead

The Chosen by Chaim Potok

“My mother gave me The Chosen by Chaim Potok when I was in eighth grade. The story is about two boys growing up in New York in the 1940s. One is being groomed to become a rabbi, yet all he wants is be free of tradition and group identity and do something in the outside world. The other boy has no such expectations put on him, yet finds himself wanting to go further and further into life’s mysteries through theology and philosophy, the very things his friend wants to leave behind.

 The book is special to me because the world represented in it seemed so noble. These were good people attempting to reach for profound things. Growing up in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, a small city of 100,000 people, I saw the way others looked at some people in the community, my grandfather for example, and saw in them something that I saw in these characters. It went beyond being liked, beyond even respect. I wanted very badly to become one of those people myself.” —Scott Reardon, author of The Prometheus Man

Writers’ Houses by Francesca Premoli-Droulers

“Finding myself alone for the first time in twenty years, in a strange town, in a new house in the woods, I find solace in Writers’ Houses, by Francesca Premoli-Droulers. My house is full of books: novels, histories, biographies and memoirs, yet I go back again and again to a coffee table book, full of pictures, light on text, a talisman against loneliness. It came to me by way of my sister-in-law, once an enemy, now a dear friend—life turned upside down, inside out. Take nothing for granted.” —Susan Sherman, author of the forthcoming If You are There and The Little Russian

The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis

“The best books I ever received were a box set of The Chronicles of Narnia that my kids, Sam and Nick, gave me when they were young teens. They knew about my Narnia love, of course—I read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe aloud to them every Christmas. At first, they enjoyed this. Then they tolerated it. Then they had to get stern. People who have lockers and driver’s permits don’t want to sit with their mother on the couch and hear a story they’ve heard a million times, even if she does beg and nearly cry and say, “Pleeeeeeeze!”

But they knew something else about my Narnia love—that I lent my copy of Wardrobe to Lisa Miller when I was in the sixth grade and never got it back. After that, the beloved collection I got from my parents when I was ten was six books plus a patched-in replacement. The new set from my kids was an act of love and acceptance that said, “We get you, Mom.” —Deb Caletti, author of the forthcoming What’s Become of Her and He’s Gone

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language by Editors of the American Heritage Dictionaries

“The best book I received as a gift is The American Heritage Dictionary. I consider this the best book gift for the following reasons: 1) dictionaries are tremendously important and 2) I’m more intelligent than I look and appreciate that someone realized it.” —Lisa Marie Perry, author of Meant to Be Mine

A Night to Remember by Walter Lord

“My bookshelves pop with memories of many, many Christmas mornings in the living room of our old house, when I’d kick past the wrapping paper, take a stack of new books to the floor by the heating duct, block it like a lazy dog and decide which one to read first. A Night To Remember by Walter Lord may have been my favorite of them all. It was already a classic by the time I received a copy one Christmas when I was a teenager. I was still reading it later in the day when the family sat down at the dinner table. Lord told the famous story of the Titanic in pinpoint details, leaving the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. It opened a new world; not so much of sinking ships, but of history so lively, it fairly flew. At Christmas dinner, my mother didn’t stop me from sneaking peaks into A Night To Remember. She understood. She’d read it and a thousand other books that she couldn’t put down.” —Julie Fenster, author of Jefferson’s America

The Harvester by Gene Stratton-Porter

The Harvester by Gene Stratton-Porter was given to me when I was around twelve. It changed the way my very childish writing went from mysteries to romantic mysteries. It literally changed my life.” —Christine Feehan, Power Game

The Fall of the House of Cabal by Jonathan L. Howard

The Fall of the House of Cabal by Jonathan L. Howard, easily—because I’d spent weeks whining at Jonathan to cough over a copy. Then, after a reading, he signed it and passed it over with great aplomb. Also, the fact he called me ‘Cannibalist and Cabalist’ in his inscribed note to me probably helped a lot.” —Cassandra Khaw, author of Hammers on Bone

The NIV Study Bible

“In 1989, I was duped into attending a church service, and a few months later, the pastor’s wife gave me a leather-bound NIV Study Bible with my name embossed on the cover. I hadn’t been much of a church-goer before that, and my knowledge of the Bible had been limited to the children’s stories I read to my four- and two-year-old daughters before bedtime. When I’d tried to read the Bible previously, its words held little meaning, seeming like a dry list of rules and repetitive stories about irrelevant strangers. But this Study Bible was different. Its verse-by-verse explanation of the cultural context and ancient customs opened up the biblical world in vivid descriptions that I could see and feel. I began telling our daughters Bible stories at bedtime, recounting in bigger-than-life detail about the heroes of faith. The people in Scripture grew flesh and bone; they drew breath; they felt sorrow and joy. They were real—as was the God I met in the pages of that unexpected gift from the pastor’s wife. Neither she nor I could have guessed that twenty-five years later I’d be publishing bigger-than-life novels about those biblical heroes of the faith. It was a gift that fanned a spark into a flame.” —Mesu Andrews, author of Miriam and the Treasures of the Nile series

The Dollhouse Murders by Betty Ren Wright

“I was blessed with parents and teachers who never screened my reading material, despite my overactive imagination. I must have been eight when a teacher gave me a copy of The Dollhouse Murders, a middle grade supernatural mystery that kept me up late, sneak-reading with a flashlight. The novel was about a girl who found a haunted dollhouse that would re-enact details of an unsolved murder in the middle of the night. It scared me so much I had to physically remove the book from my room before I went to sleep…and yet I wanted more. That novel sent me down a long path of creepy page-turners and nights spent quaking in my bed. To this day, I find ghost stories and murder mysteries incredibly satisfying, which probably explains something about the books I write.” —Hester Young, author of The Gates of Evangeline and the forthcoming sequel The Shimmering Road

Christy by Catherine Marshall

“As a twelve-year-old, I received Christy by Catherine Marshall as a Christmas present from my grandmother. To my pre-teen eyes, it seemed a dauntingly long book. I needed to grow into it. Christy lived on my bookshelf for a couple of years before I took it down, opened its pages, and promptly fell in love—with the characters, the mountain setting, the Scottish history woven throughout the tale like mist winding through the hollows of Cutter Gap. Perhaps more than anything, that sense of the past nudging up against the present, unwilling to be forgotten, spoke to something deep in me. These elements of Christy have informed me as a writer; with every book I write I am in part attempting to recapture the magic and immersion I felt while reading Christy. Since it was a few years after receiving the book before I came to appreciate it, I sent a second—and heartfelt—thank you note to my grandmother, who would become one of my greatest encouragers after I embarked on my writing and publishing journey in my early twenties. The day my debut novel, Burning Sky, won the Christy Award, named after the book that awakened so many abiding writerly passions, I imagined my grandmother watching from heaven and smiling at the seeds planted years ago.” —Lori Benton, author of Award Winning Burning Sky and the The Pathfinders Series

The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane by Laird Koenig

“In the late 70s, my mother gave me a copy of Laird Koenig’s The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane. It’s the story of Rynn, a teenager, who lives in an old house in a small community on an East Coast island with her father, a poet. It was the first suspense book I ever read.

The story had it all; a nosy landlady and her creepy son, a love story, a magician, a police officer, and Rynn hiding something dark. Her character drew me in; she was a girl with a secret. I hoped that real life would be just like the book; that I would be okay on my own, I could look adults straight in the eye and demand to be taken seriously, that there’d always be people who’d protect me, and all the boys I’d meet would be as charming and courageous as Mario, the magician, and together we’d keep secrets—even sinister ones. I saw no fault with Rynn’s crimes whatsoever, it made her even more endearing. I was also fascinated by the book itself; a black hardcover with a picture of a girl with a magician spreading out his arms behind her. It was special because it was so different from the generic childhood books in which girls save horses or live in log cabins and lead a pioneer life. It opened up an entire genre and forty years later here I am, writing suspense novels.” —Alexandra Burt, The Good Daughter

And finally…

“I don’t remember the name of the best book I ever received as a present. Actually, not so much a present as classroom materials. I was a little English boy of 5 or 6 sitting behind my desk in a classroom in London. The teacher handed out a book to each student, a book that was supposed to get us to the next level of reading, the level beyond Dick and Jane. It looked intimidating. I knew that the words would get harder as the book progressed, so I couldn’t stop myself from cheating a bit and turning to the very last page. What I saw horrified me. Two words, words longer than I had ever seen. Impossible to decipher. All I could tell was that it was actually the same word repeated twice. I was gripped by the absolute certain fear, that I would never, never be able to read those two gargantuan words even if I lived to be a hundred.

Life went on as life tends to do, and slowly but surely, I managed to progress through the pages of the book, always in the knowledge that an insurmountable brick wall, two brick walls, awaited me on the last page. Then, the appointed hour arrived. The class had finally reached that dreaded last page and, to my amazement, the monstrous words untangled themselves right before my eyes and I read aloud:

‘Goodbye. Goodbye.’

Somehow, I had managed to climb the forbidding mountain of indecipherable words. To this day, whenever I face a daunting challenge, a creative destination I doubt that I will be ever able to achieve, I think of those two words. ‘Goodbye. Goodbye.’” —Carson Morton, author of Stealing Mona Lisa


Featured image: triocean/shutterstock.com

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.

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