The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison (Vintage, $14). There's no book that better captures the frustrations, hopes, dreams, and disappointments of black American girls. This book was written before Ms. Morrison outgrew the storytelling form that most writers must adhere to. She's a genius. She can fly. The rest of us have to wait for the subway.
Becoming a Man by Paul Monette (Harper Perennial, $14). I read this book after several of my close friends died of AIDS. I can't recall a book that so clearly captures the difficulty of growing up gay in America. Many of those issues are, sadly, as pertinent now as ever — though we are making progress. Monette was a wonderfully gifted writer. He humanizes a part of the world that so many of us think we know.
Been in the Storm So Long by Leon F. Litwack (Vintage, $9.50). This 1980 Pulitzer Prize winner reveals the day-to-day life of white and black America during slavery and just after emancipation. It communicates how the two groups grappled with the tremendous moral dilemma that slavery presented. Good historians who write well are like good filmmakers. They reel the film before your eyes with tremendous effectiveness. Litwack is one of those.
The Moccasin Telegraph by W.P. Kinsella (out of print). I love Kinsella's voice. These are wonderful stories of life on a Cree reservation in rural Alberta, Canada — from a writer who seems to see it all.
Sports Illustrated: Going Deep by Gary Smith (Sports Illustrated, $27). This is a compilation, from the greatest living sportswriter in America. The 20 stories in Going Deep are not about sports, they're about people — and the moral starts, fits, fights, and clashes that live within us all, and often play themselves out on the field.
A Year of Days With the Book of Common Prayer by Bishop Edmond Lee Browning (out of print). A wonderful day-to-day spiritual guide by the former head of the Episcopal Church, written in plain English. I read a page of this book every morning. It helps me keep God close.
— James McBride is a novelist, screenwriter, saxophonist, and author of the 1996 memoir The Color of Water. His new novel, The Good Lord Bird, is about a 12-year-old freed slave who in 1859 joins John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry.