Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell (Scribner, $18). Gone With the Wind shaped the South I grew up in more than any other book. Few white Southerners, even today, can read this book without conjuring up a complex, tortured dreamscape of the South. To Southerners like my mother, Gone With the Wind was not just a book; it was an answer, a clenched fist raised to the North, an anthem of defiance.
Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe (Scribner, $18). I mark the reading of Look Homeward, Angel as one of the pivotal events of my life. It starts off with the single greatest, knock-your-socks-off first page I have ever come across in my careful reading of world literature. The book took full possession of me in a way no book has before or since. It was the first time I realized that breathing and the written word were intimately connected to each other.
Deliverance by James Dickey (Delta, $15). Let me now praise the American writer James Dickey. In 1970, his novel Deliverance was published. I found it to be 278 pages that approached perfection. Its tightness of construction and assuredness of style reminded me of The Great Gatsby. Every sentence sounded marvelous, distinct, and original, and it flowed as quickly as the river it celebrated.
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien (Mariner, $20). In an endangered land of dwarves and elves and wizards, I listened to the story of creation and the unseen world told once more by a writer with supernatural, unsurpassable gifts. I let the story possess me, take me prisoner, feed me with the endless abundance of its honeycombed depths.
Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino (Harcourt, $14). A masterpiece of the first order. The book is a long epic poem, a glittering tour de force, an extinct volcano that comes roaring back to explosive life, a code of conduct into the mind’s interior realms, a delight and a paradox.
The collected works of Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky: When I bought a collection of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, I returned home with a bright enthusiasm to begin the long march into the Russian soul. Though I’ve failed to read either man to completion, they both helped me to imagine that my fictional South Carolina was as vast a literary acreage as their Russia.
—Pat Conroy is the author of The Prince of Tides, The Great Santini, and the 2009 best-seller South of Broad. His new memoir, My Reading Life, is an ode to the books that shaped his career as a writer