There are suddenly a lot of book memes circulating. While I'll take a pass on the "List the great books you've read" one, here's one via Wil Duquette that I like: listing the ten books that had the biggest impact on my life.
Now, it's really hard to do this, now that I've been thinking of it for a day or two. It's tough to gauge impact, because I find that books can often lay in the tall grass, so to speak, for many years -- I'll read them, file them away in my brain, and then suddenly discover later on how they moved me in one direction or another. I've waffled on a lot of these titles, and who knows, I may come back and change them later. Anyway, here are ten books, some of which won't be a surprise to longtime readers. (These are in no particular order, and as I tend to do in "List" posts, I cheat. A lot.)
1. Cosmos, Carl Sagan. To this day, this is still the book that has influenced my overall worldview regarding the Universe and our place within it more than any other. I find so much more awe, so much more poetic beauty, so much more reverence in a Universe that is billions of years old and through physical processes eventually gave rise to life and consciousness than I do in the idea of a static Universe popped into being in just six days, six thousand years ago. The science of this book may be out of date, but I don't care. As far as I am concerned, it is a towering achievement of twentieth century science writing.
2. The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien. It's pretty obvious why, I think.
3. Salem's Lot, Stephen King. This is the first out-and-out horror book I read, once I was ready to really delve into the genre.
4. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King. This book provided the answers to questions I didn't even know I had.
5. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke. I'm pretty sure I read some science fiction before this, but this one cemented my love of the genre for all time. And not only that, this book showed me what was possible in the genre besides Star Wars space opera and Star Trek "sociological" SF.
6. The Prydain Chronicles, Lloyd Alexander. (Yeah, it's a five book set, actually. Deal with it.) My first encounter with epic fantasy, two years before Tolkien.
7. Tigana, Guy Gavriel Kay. It's not my favorite GGK novel, but it's the first that I read, and in the same way 2001 pushed me beyond my original idea of what SF was, Tigana broadened my horizons of what fantasy can do.
8. The Joy of Music and The Infinite Variety of Music, Leonard Bernstein. I group these together because the content of each -- essays, teleplays from Bernstein's TV programs, interviews -- are so similar in style and tone. These two books shaped my love of music more than any others. I always adored Bernstein's ability to adore and venerate a very wide range of music, and I have always tried to follow his example. (This is a man who would as soon conduct Mozart as he would David Diamond.)
9. Dungeon, Fire and Sword: The Knights Templar in the Crusades, John J. Robinson. A fascinating era of history, engagingly written by a writer who didn't produce nearly enough books.
10. The Book of Marvels, Richard Halliburton. This man's travel writings, all of which roughly correspond to the years between the two World Wars, are a clinic on how to convey "sense of wonder". Track down a copy, and when you read it, try to ignore the obvious anachronisms (like the fairly obvious "white man's superiority" stuff, which is par for the course for the book's day).
And, you know, why not a couple of honorable mentions:
11. Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud can teach you a great deal about storytelling, and not just about comics.
12. The follow-up, Reinventing Comics, is less about storytelling and more about the possibilities inherent in a digital age.
13. Adventures in the Screen Trade and Which Lie Did I Tell? More Adventures in the Screen Trade William Goldman. These will also teach you a great deal about storytelling; and for me, they pretty much squashed any idea that I'd ever try to sell a film script. (Not that I could sell the ones I've already written, of course, because they're Star Wars fan-fictions.)
14. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, Carl Sagan. Essential reading, really, in this age of belief in UFOs and holeopathic medicine and various other nonsense items.
15. The House with a Clock in its Walls, John Bellairs. Just because Bellairs is a favorite author of mine, and this is the first of his that I read. Gothic fiction for kids. Great stuff.
16. Danny, the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl. Humor, warmth, darkness, cruelty, love, pain, redemption, and the perfect ending. All in one book.
OK, that's it. For now. (I told you I cheat!)