A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (Norton, $14). I first read this during high school, because I wasn’t old enough to see the 1971 film at the cinema. I loved the language, story, and structure. I started scribbling stories about my own experiences, so really this is the book that got me writing.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark (Harper Perennial, $13). I studied this novel at university and marveled at its conciseness and depth. Spark packs so much into each sentence and scene. It’s also very funny, with moments of tragedy and horror.
Laidlaw by William McIlvanney (Harvest, $15). Again, I read this at university, just as I was beginning to sketch out what would become my first Inspector Rebus novel. McIlvanney brought depth and nuance to the crime story, showing us the effect crime has on those who investigate it.
Players by Jilly Cooper (Ballantine, $23; originally published in the U.K. under the title Rivals). My wife and I moved to France in 1990, and I set out to become a full-time writer. Our first winter we were snowed in, and the only book in the house I hadn’t read was this one. It managed to defrost me with its bawdy, well-researched look behind the scenes at a British television company.
A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell (University of Chicago, $93 for the complete set). I’m cheating, because this is a connected series of 12 novels, which encompass the lifetime of the hero, a novelist not unlike Powell himself. Powell’s prose is exquisite, his characters memorable, and he has a keen understanding of what makes us human.
Four Quartets by T. S. Eliot (Harvest, $9). I studied these poems in high school and come back to them every decade or so. As I grow older, they become ever more meaningful as a meditation on the passing of time and the span of human life. They are opaque, humane, moving, and I look forward to reading them again … in time.