I usually don't love these types of chain-tags, but I'm all for supporting book culture! Here are my top ten, along with three bonus poems that have held my heart and aren't included in the books I'm listing.
Morning in the Burned House by Margaret Atwood
Roger gave me my copy of this for my eighteenth birthday, the year I also received a gorgeous and overwhelming strand of pearls from my parents. I think it's the book that made me a poet. I'd written poems before, but never thought of them as something you could build a life on. They were always funny little things before, or else serious and inaccessible. Reading Atwood, feeling as if this was a person who really understood girlhood with all its rough parts and its beautiful parts, made me realize for the first time that poetry is a thing of marvelous possibility. More than any other book on this list of life-altering books, this book changed the course of my life.
Behind the Attic Wall by Sylvia Cassidy
I've loved seeing how many books on everyone's list are children's books. There were so many that I had to leave off this list—Little Women and Goodnight, Moon are two particularly heartbreaking omissions; Harry Potter, Marvin Redpost, and the American Girl books all stand out, too—so I think that Behind the Attic Wall needs to stand in for what I loved in all books in childhood: lush detail about houses, miniatures or dolls of some sort, magic, and a secret place to escape from an unhappy world. Behind the Attic Wall had it all, and when my lips crack from being chapped in the winter, it's the very first thing I think of.
The Foot Book by Dr. Suess
The first book I ever read by myself. It competes with Goodnight, Moon for my affections as far as picture books go. I memorized Goodnight, Moon and "read" it aloud to my kindergarten class—a moment of pride almost as great as learning to spell the word "because"—but The Foot Book is the first one I ever actually read, and it started a lifetime of devouring books for me. NB: My parents didn't realize I was actually reading for a while; they thought I was quoting from TV programs.
Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
A favorite book from a favorite author. Woolf's work has always stunned me in its incredible range, and I think Mrs Dalloway is her opus for its clarity, precision, and ability to capture the entire complexity of existence in a mere 200 pages. Ulysses is incredible, but Mrs Dalloway is better. I don't care what Danny Kaiser says.
The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
It was hard for me to choose between The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom! here. They're both incredible, complicated, and deeply moving. I think they should be read together, as I read them for conference in a brilliant course on "The World Turned Upside Down: Race and Gender in the Civil War" taught by a brilliant professor, Lyde Sizer. The course changed my life, and so did those books. But The Sound and the Fury wins out for me by standing on its own in such a powerful way. This is the first book that made me think in a real way about masculinity and manhood in America, a topic I would have written my dissertation on, had I gone to a PhD. It's also just beautiful. Faulkner is a genius in the way Woolf and Toni Morrison are geniuses.
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
It was hard to choose just one book by Steinbeck, one of my favorite authors. East of Eden and Of Mice and Men are both so, so excellent, also. The Grapes of Wrath wins out, maybe, because of its interspliced chapters on natural beauty, and because I'm obsessed with the Road Novel. But also, if you're using this as a reading list, just read all three of them. They're each stunning in their own way and show the enormous range that Steinbeck employed throughout his writing career.
A Separate Peace by John Knowles
I read this my sophomore year of high school, and as sometimes happens with these things, it was the right book at the right time. Reading it was a kick in the gut, and I sobbed at the end. I hardly remember a thing about it now, except how profoundly it moved me, and how much I loved it that year. I'm glad that in college I was introduced to so many incredible works and asked to think deeply about them so quickly, but the luxury of sitting with a book for weeks in high school is unmatched.
Crow by Ted Hughes
A deeply powerful piece of poetry that I think tends to be a bit overshadowed by Sylvia Plath's work. Crow was the first time I'd seen powerful mythologies and histories tied into contemporary poetry, and Hughes's images, gruesome and painful, are seared into my mind as if I'd read them minutes ago, a decade on.
Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith
I can't say enough good about this more recent book of poems. Before I read it, I was suspect of collections of poetry with too clear a theme, even a theme as interesting as "the personal story of a family told through outer space and David Bowie references." The incredible pieces here completely changed my mind, though. They stand on their own, but when taken together, they become something truly powerful. Since then I've enjoyed a few other really lovely collections that surround a theme, but in the same way as Life of Mars: Stag's Leap by Sharon Olds and Kyrie by Ellen Bryant Voigt.
Facts for Visitors by Srikanth Reddy
This was one of the first books poetry I read that managed to be both deeply cerebral and profoundly emotionally moving, a line I'm always trying to play with in my own work (with rather less success than Facts for Visitors does, I think). The playful nature of the language throughout the book, combined with a seriousness of study throughout, made this one of my favorite discoveries from my very first workshop in poetry.
Three Bonus Poems:"Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" by Robert Frost
"Pied Beauty" by Gerard Manley Hopkins
"Men at Forty" by Donald Justice