“The Best Literary Gift I Ever Received”

25 authors tell Read it Forward about the most special books they’ve gotten as presents—and the gift-givers behind them.

Our motto when it comes to the holiday season? Books: Good to Give, Great to Get. So that’s why we totally get when people tell us they received a book once that changed them in some way—whether it was their childhood reading habits, their relationship to their parents or grandparents or their own writing or literary aspirations.

When you’re thinking about your own holiday shopping list this year, use this list as your guide for books that pack a powerful punch. Every Saturday in December, we’re sharing author reflections about incredible books they’ve received that have stuck with them to this day. See last week’s round-up here and check back next week to read even more.

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The Secret History by Donna Tartt

“When I was covering the (Bill) Clinton presidential campaign in ‘92, one of the final campaign stops took me to Raleigh, NC, not far from my then home-base of Greensboro, NC. A dear friend (who, like me, aspired to write books someday) arrived at an enormous rally to wave hello—and, since it was my birthday, deliver a gift for me. The place was so packed and we in the press corps were on such a tight deadline, he and I literally saw each other long enough for him to pass over a wrapped package. It was Donna Tartt’s novel The Secret History, the new, hardcover edition, with a gorgeous cover—a book we’d both anticipated because we’d read how meticulous a writer she was.” —Lisa Napoli, author of Ray & Joan

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Once in A Great City: A Detroit Story by David Maraniss

“My wife Lori bought me Once in A Great City, David Maraniss’ book about Detroit in the year of my birth, 1963. It’s an amazing read about a moment in time when the city seemed to have its act together, but beneath the surface, things were coming undone. It’s a story about the country, really, and it reminded me how modern-day Detroit could be a model for national renewal. Lori gave it to me shortly after we decided to move to our hometown from Washington D.C. and, now that we’re home again, it has a special place on our bookshelves.” —Ron Fournier, author of Love That Boy

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The Writing Life by Annie Dillard

“When I began writing in the late nineties, my first and only writing teacher, Les Plesko, gave me his marked-up copy of Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, a collection of profound and intimate essays which gave me permission to write how I intrinsically wanted, ‘from cell to cell, to bole to bough, to twig to leaf.’ She talks of the reason to perfect a piece of prose at it progresses, to secure each sentence before building on it, allowing a story to unfurl. ‘Any careful word may suggest a route, may begin a strand of metaphor or event out of which much, or all, will develop.’ What Les Plesko had underlined in Annie Dillard’s book, gifted me with the courage to write in this organic fashion, each line of words becoming a ‘miner’s pick, a woodcarver’s gouge’ to dig the path I cautiously follow.” —David Francis, author of Wedding Bush Road

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The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis

“I was twelve, it was Christmas and I knew my dad had gotten me books, I just wasn’t sure which ones. At the time, I was so obsessed with reading that I would beg him to take me to the book store just so I could smell the books. The wrapping paper was red and he’d put so much tape on it, I wanted to scream. Once the present was unwrapped, tears filled my eyes, the entire collection of C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia stared back at me; it was a collector’s edition. I still have the books to this day. I read them over and over again. Those books will always hold a special place in my heart because my dad introduced me to them, but also because they are such literary treasures. I plan on passing them down to my son, Thor and can’t wait until he’s old enough to learn all about Aslan and Turkish Delight!” —Rachel Van Dyken, author of the forthcoming novel The Bachelor Auction

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The Globe Illustrated Shakespeare: The Complete Works Annotated by William Shakespeare, Howard Staunton, John Gilbert

“Ron Whyte the playwright lived downstairs from me and gave me books as presents, including the Staunton Annotated and Illustrated Shakespeare for Christmas (I was age twelve). Here is his writing in the front, with loopy g’s and y’s, dashes, underlining, and unpredictable shapes that still seems quintessentially artistic: ‘Shakespeare is the writer — greatest writer — of our language and our greatest dramatist, and his work grows with us — as we grow, always offering us something new, something of immediate meaning, and also American artistic concerns and workings — !’ I don’t use the edition anymore but it still brings back who he was, the giver, and who he thought I could be.” —Damion Searls, author of the forthcoming The Inkblots

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Illumination Night by Alice Hoffman

“I received Alice Hoffman’s Illumination Night as a gift when I was in high school. It was my introduction to magical realism, though, at the time when I received it, I don’t think I was aware of how significant of a gift it really was. After reading Illumination Night, I was inspired to read other novels by other magical realists— Gabriel García Márquez, Isabel Allende, Leslie Silko Marmon, Louise Erdich—and then eventually write my first novel, The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender.” —Leslye Walton, author of The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender

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The Autobiography of an American Novelist by Thomas Wolfe and Leslie Field

“When I turned eighteen, my father offhandedly gave me a hardbound copy of The Autobiography of an American Novelist, which contains two essays on the art of writing by Thomas Wolfe. Until then, I half-imagined that the best fiction writing was done almost by magic by those women and men, our literary heroes, who were fortunate enough to be born with the rare and exquisite gift of storytelling. In my mind, they’d just sit at their writing desks and, as the result of ‘sporadic flashes of casual inspiration,’ words beautiful and profound would flow from their pens and pencils and typewriters onto the page. I was surprised to learn from Wolfe in these unsentimental essays, however, that writing is first and foremost about hard work— ‘desperately hard work,’ according to him. This idea of the writer as a ‘working man’ informed my approach to writing and taught me that endless hours of toil with little or no reward is to be expected, even for the expansive Mr. Wolfe.” —Phillip Lewis, author of the forthcoming novel The Barrowfields

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Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha by Tara Brach

“A good friend gave me Tara Brach’s Radical Acceptance, a book about ‘awakening from the trance of unworthiness.’ Like many of us, I spend a great deal of time judging my accomplishments, criticizing my thoughts, scolding myself for my lack of spiritual progress. Brach speaks beautifully about cultivating self-compassion and uncovering a natural friendliness towards yourself.  I have read the book twice and will read it again because the turn toward self-acceptance is such a radical re-orientation that it helps me to hear Brach repeat her guidance—in her clear, simple, and loving way.” —Maggie Rowe, author of the forthcoming Sin Bravely: A Memoir of Spiritual Disobedience

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Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective by Donald J. Sobol

“One afternoon when I was seven years old, my mom and I went to our local bookshop, The Twig, in San Antonio, Texas, where she picked a book out for me that I was sure I was going to hate: Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective by Donald J. Sobol. But from the first page to the last, I was hooked, falling in love with Leroy Brown, Idaville’s ten-year-old boy sleuth, and I ended up owning every one of the twenty-eight books in the series. I was pretty good at figuring out the whodunits and decided that I was going to be a detective myself when I grew up. Instead, I became a writer, which, I see now, is a lot like being a detective, except that as a writer I have both to create the mystery and solve it at the same time. There’s a real art to writing suspense and while I’m not sure I’ll ever master it, I can definitely say that reading Encyclopedia Brown whet my appetite for it and taught me quite a lot about the form. Even now, I’m not sure that I would have been able to write, Tell Me How This Ends Well, my latest novel, if I hadn’t been exposed all those years ago to Leroy Brown.” —David Samuel Levinson, author of the forthcoming novel Tell Me How This Ends Well 

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The Fine Art of Italian Cooking: The Classic Cookbook, Updated & Expanded by Giuliano Bugialli

“I seldom get books as presents anymore…working as the Reviews Director at Publishers Weekly took care of that, but I received a book from my very best friend and her Italian husband one birthday many years ago…The Fine Art of Italian Cooking by Giuliano Bugialli. It is still the only cookbook I ever use…its spine is held together with duct tape and I cook from it every Christmas and Easter. It reads like a textbook and the recipes are very complicated with confusing black and white photos. And, I like that in the introduction, Bugialli makes it clear that all French cooking started in Italy!” —Louisa Ermelino, author of Malafemmena

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The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle

“In third grade, my family moved across the country in the middle of the school year. The world was covered in snow, which I’d never seen before, and I was very, very lonely for a while. During that time, my mom was constantly coming home with used paperbacks she picked up on her way home from work. She had no interest in reading them herself, and did not vet them. Nevertheless, she had a mysterious knack for knowing exactly what I would like, which is how I came to own both The Silmarillion and an academic anthology of Victorian children’s literature called Beyond the Looking Glass before I was nine years old. By far the most important of these gifts of comfort, however, was Peter S. Beagle’s wise, gentle fantasy classic The Last Unicorn. I read it aloud to myself so many times over the course of my elementary and middle school years that I still have almost the entire first chapter memorized. It begins, ‘The unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone.’ What a sentence for a lonely child, or for anyone who has ever despaired of finding her tribe. Beagle’s musical prose and eloquent humanism were a great comfort to me then, and still are now.” —Amy Gentry, author of Good As Gone

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Youth: Scenes from Provincial Life II by J. M. Coetzee

“It was in 2004. I was twenty-one years old, a student of Comparative Literature at UC Berkeley, with hopes of one day becoming a writer, and although I read all day, I rarely ever received any books. I never understood why. Perhaps those around me thought it better to remind me of other pleasures in life than reading. Nevertheless, on one rainy evening in October, I did receive a gift. It was a novel titled Youth: Scenes from Provincial Life II, written by a South African author, a Nobel Laureate, I had never heard of. His name was J. M. Coetzee. I began reading Youth as soon as I got back home, and ever since then, my relationship with words has taken a completely different turn.

Published in 2002 as the second segment of Coetzee’s fictionalized memoir, the first being Scenes from Provincial Life: Boyhood, Youth, Summertime, Youth is about a young man who flees the political turmoil of Cape Town in the 1960s, seeking refuge in London. This is not, however, so much a story about the tribulations of flight and refuge but about a journey of dreams and hopes of self-realization that gradually becomes one of self-loathing, failure and isolation. The protagonist has come to London with the dreams of becoming a great poet. He also wants to find the love of his life, and until then, hopes to lunge into the legendary sex world he has so much mused about. In London, he wants to become the man that he felt in part he could not become in Cape Town. This semi-biographical novel, which is written in present tense and in which Coetzee refers to himself as “he,” ends with the narrator doing a tedious job as a computer programmer for IBM, having engaged in very few quite sullen, passionless sexual encounters, and the closest he comes to love is with the beautiful Italian actress Monica Vitti, who floats before him unreachable and phantom-like on the screen of a half empty cinema. He never becomes a great poet. He barely ever writes.

Reading Youth, I remember I was thunderstruck. I had never read anything like it before. The lucidity, the honesty, the tenderness. Coetzee unfolds the agonizing disintegration of dreams with what seemed to me an unwavering, at times even brutal, almost mathematical precision. Not one word can be exchanged for another, not one phrase can be written otherwise. It was amazing to me that one can write in such brief, succinct terms—the novel itself is less than two hundred pages—and yet bore so deep into the human soul with all its maddening, fearful, convoluted urge to be set free. You have to learn to write like him, I told myself. Keep it short. Do not digress. Be sparing. Be precise. Treat every word like it is the last word that lives. From reading Youth, I learned to write in present tense when speaking about my past and use “she” when writing about myself. I learned what it means to fictionalize what one has lived and what it means to give reality to what one remembers.

It has now been about twelve years since I first came across Coetzee’s writing, and his novels continue to sit on my desk, accompanying my writing every step of the way. I have not come anywhere close to what I wish I could accomplish, but Coetzee’s novels are always there, giving me guidance as well as inspiration, and as I would like to look at it, discipline.” —Sahar Delijani, author of Children of the Jacaranda Tree

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Norwegian Wood: Chopping, Stacking and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way by Lars Mytting

“This is a glorious book, beautifully illustrated and photographed and written in a such pitch-perfect prose that you can feel the love of trees, forests, wood piles and stoves, emanate from the pages. It was a special gift because I didn’t know I wanted it until I got it. It was given to me by my wife and I love that after a decade together, she can still surprise me and she still knows me better than I know myself.” —Beth Lewis, author of The Wolf Road

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Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center by bell hooks

Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center by bell hooks. This book rewrote my brain. I don’t want to think of what sort of person I might be if this book never came into my life. This holiday season, give the gift that keeps on giving: books that make us less shitty people!” —Zachary Auburn, author of How to Talk to Your Cat about Gun Safety

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Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

“In May of 1996, Christa Faust and I were walking around Hollywood one night, and it came up in conversation that I’d somehow managed never to read Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love. Which is kind of odd, I admit, but then we all have those inexplicable gaps and blind spots in our reading. There was a little bookshop—I can’t recall the name of it—just across the street, and she went inside and bought me a copy, right there on the spot. In those days, I didn’t have much money to spend on books. A couple of days later we drove from L.A. up to Eugene, Oregon for a writer’s conference, and all the way up and all the way back we read Geek Love aloud to one another. And I immediately fell in love with it, and to this day it’s probably one of my ten favorite novels, ever.” —Caitlín R. Kiernan, author of the forthcoming novella Agents of Dreamland

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

“In December of 1998, I heard an interview on the radio about a little children’s book that was already popular in the U.K. but had just been published in America—something called Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. It sounded interesting, so I bought a copy for a friend and mailed it to her for Christmas.

When I received my Christmas gift from her that year, I opened the wrapping to find…a copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. She had heard the same interview, and had the same thought! I love how in sync we were (and, it turns out, what good taste we both have!).” —Eleanor Brown, author of The Light of Paris

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Dictionary of the Khazars by Milorad Pavić

“I was given Dictionary of the Khazars by Milorad Pavić by a woman in a small apartment in the outskirts of Vilnius sometime in the fall of 2009. I had just recently become the sort of traveler who relies much upon the offerings of strangers, and in addition to the aforementioned pseudo-novel, she and her boyfriend were also kind enough to offer me several nights’ rest on a couch in their living room which I shared with a gigantic St. Bernard—a friendly, oafish, slavering beast utterly incongruous to the small Soviet-era apartment in which he lived—Baltic wine and pleasant company. On my last night there, I was offered my pick of a selection of titles from her small library, and despite my best efforts, I was not able to beg off this kindness. For whatever reason I picked up Dictionary of the Khazars, a peculiar work of fake history and magical realism, which was famously released in two additions, each with slight distinctions, so that only by finding a partner could you understand the complete work. Alas, I was never able to duplicate this act of generosity, and the book remains packed away in a box somewhere. Perhaps I’ll find it soon, and give it to some similarly undeserving target.” — Daniel Polansky, author of A City Dreaming

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One Morning in Maine by Robert McCloskey

“When I was young, my Great Aunt Frances gave me a Caldecott or Newberry award-winning book each Christmas. I still have many of those books, including my favorite, One Morning in Maine by Robert McCloskey. Aunt Frances had no children of her own, but she wanted to pass her love for reading on to the next generation. I was blessed to be her favorite niece and the recipient of her gifts. I spent hours poring over those books. They stirred my imagination, gave me a love for a well-told story, and prompted me to explore writing. When I became a mother, I took those books down from the shelf and read them aloud to my five children, and the magic continued! Now I write English historical novels targeted to adults, but I have many teen readers, and it’s a thrill to think I’m writing books that are inspiring the next generation of readers and writers. —Carrie Turansky, author of the Edwardian Bride Series and Shine Like the Dawn

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A Childhood: The Biography of a Place by Harry Crews

“I was terrified of writing, despite wanting so badly to write. So when Stuart Friebert, a poet and translator who encouraged so many poets and writers and playwrights and musicians at Oberlin, handed me a book off his desk shelf one day and said I think this is for you, I read it at once. It was Harry Crews’ A Childhood: The Biography of a Place. A memoir of a painful, dirt-poor upbringing, which Crews wrote out plainly and beautifully, because it was the only upbringing he’d ever have. Five years later, I was at University of Florida studying with Harry, which seemed both a mismatch and foreordained. I don’t know if Stuart saw that reading somebody like Crews would free me, or if it was that I respected his direction and his gift and worked myself free. But the book has lived on by my desk since.” —Bill Beverly, author of Dodgers

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The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

“Years ago, a friend gave me a copy of The Bell Jar, knowing that I planned on heading to New York City after graduating from college. The story, about a young girl living at the Barbizon Hotel for Women in the summer of ‘53, while working at a women’s magazine (which echoed Plath’s own experience), resonated with me for several reasons. I identified with Esther Greenwood’s self-imposed pressure to succeed, leaving little room for emotional growth or failure. And I was struck by how limiting the choices were for young women in the 50s, that the expectation was to eventually settle down. Thirty years later, I used my own novel to explore similar themes, all thanks to Plath’s lyrical, and tragic, inspiration.” —Fiona Davis, author of The Dollhouse

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When You Were Small by Sara O’Leary, illustrated by Julie Morstad

“I’ve been given a lot of gorgeous books (mainly art books) that I treasure, but if we’re talking really special then I’d have to say When You Were Small by Sara O’Leary and Julie Morstad. A friend gave it to me just a few days before my son was born. It’s such a sweet story that I’ve read to him over and over—and Julie’s illustrations? Absolutely beautiful!” —Danielle Krysa, author of Your Inner Critic Is a Big Jerk

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Welcome To Springfield by Michael Abrams

“The best book I ever received as a gift was Welcome To Springfield by Michael Abrams. It is an inspiring example of how anonymous snapshots, pages from old family albums and ephemera set in motion by design can create fictional stories and trigger personal memories.” —Barbara Levine, author of People Knitting

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A World of Fairy Tales by James Riordan

“At some point in my early twenties, I asked my parents if I could take from their shelves the five volumes of James Riordan’s A World of Fairy Tales, the majestic set of eggshell-blue hardcovers slotted in a large cardboard slipcase. These cross-cultural tales contained mermaid boobs (illustrated!), a Russian marsh baba, a roomful of human bones, and a bird who tells of a murder with red flecks of blood on its beak; they were old-world, dark, and death-haunted, the opposite of Disney, and my mother, who’d acted in college and community theater, read the stories to my little sister and me in a flamboyant voice that seemed the perfect combination of terrifying and familiar: she was the Troll King from Peer Gynt, the ghost who speaks from a black shawl in Lotus Blossom, the cackling Sea Witch in The Little Mermaid. In every apartment, duplex, or house I’ve lived, Riordan’s collected fairy tales form the central text on my bookshelves: a reflection of the place of stories—and their tellers—in my life.” —Anna Journey, author of the forthcoming essay collection, An Arrangement of Skin 

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Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach

“I received a copy of Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull from a good friend as a birthday gift many years ago and immediately fell in love with it. I’ve read a lot of books since then, but I’ve never forgotten this inspiring parable about a seagull’s education in flight. It taught me that it’s okay to be different and that in order to reach our true potential, we have to believe in ourselves.” —Wendy Wax, author of Sunshine Beach

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Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

“My mom and I both love to read and we give each other books as presents for every occasion. When I turned eleven or twelve, she gave me a copy of Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell for my birthday and this was one of my most memorable and special book gifts. (I still have it sitting on my bookshelf in my office!) because it was my first experience with historical fiction.” —Jillian Cantor, author of The Hours Count


Featured image: MsDianaZ/Sutterstock.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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