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A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (Dover, $3.50). Early on, I was so impressed with Charles Dickens. I grew up in the South, in a little village in Arkansas, and the whites in my town were really mean, and rude. Dickens, I could tell, wouldn't be a man who would curse me out and talk to me rudely.

The Bible. I love the melodies in the Old Testament, how preachers highlight them when they read from the Scripture. But I was influenced forever by the New Testament. I love the Beatitudes, informing us that the meek shall inherit the earth.

Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe (Scribner, $18). I've read everything Thomas Wolfe ever wrote; my brother and I memorized whole chapters of You Can't Go Home Again and Look Homeward, Angel. It's hard to select just one of Wolfe's books, but his story of a man who leaves his North Carolina town to seek a better life was probably the most important to me.

The Collected Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar (Univ. of Virginia, $22.50). When you are put down by the larger society and there's a poet who compares the color of your skin to chocolate and brown sugar, you fall for it, because you need it. Paul Laurence Dunbar — who was one of the great poets of the 19th and 20th centuries — wrote about African-Americans, and he showed me the beauty of our colors and the wonder of our music.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (Bantam, $4). When I read Alcott, I knew that these girls she was talking about were all white. But they were nice girls and I understood them. I felt like I was almost there with them in their living room and their kitchen. 

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (Vintage, $16). When I first read Ellison's 1952 novel, it was as if somebody turned a bright light on in a dark corridor. That which I thought was so frightening, so terrifying, was just a shadow.

—  In her new book, Mom & Me & Mom, Maya Angelou recalls her turbulent relationship with her late mother and their ultimate reconciliation.