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Letters from the Heart

''Charlotte's Web.'' ''Pride and Prejudice.'' ''Catcher in the Rye.'' What do your favorite books say about you?

Your favorite books: Are you what you read?

A few weeks ago I wrote about the ''dirty'' books that had, um, informed EW staffers' adolescences; this week, I'm tackling the opposite: the books that changed our lives for different reasons. I was already thinking about this when, last Wednesday, an elegant little paperback landed on my desk: The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books.

The editor, J. Peder Zane, contacted every contemporary writer he could think of and asked them to list their ten favorite novels. Not everyone took him up on the challenge — Philip Roth and John Updike both declined, for instance — but a lot of heavy-hitters, 125 in all, did. Want to know which books mean the most to Joyce Carol Oates, Norman Mailer, Scott Turow, or Jonathan Franzen? They're all here. As Zane says, ''Spend some time deciphering the lists compiled by your favorite writers, and you'll get a real sense of their personalities.'' Stephen King's No. 1 is an out-of-print collection of short stories called The Golden Argosy, which he plucked from a bin at a used bookstore in Maine years ago. It ''...taught me more about good writing than all the classes I've ever taken,'' he told Zane. Annie Proulx, who first gave Zane a good scolding — ''It has not escaped me that nearly every newspaper, book review publication, and magazine are currently gripped by list fever. Lists, unless grocery-shopping lists, are truly a reduction ad absurdum'' — picked Homer's Odyssey as her favorite. Carl Hiaasen cited Catch-22. And yet, believe it or not, there isn't a tremendous amount of duplication here. 125 writers and 544 books: that means that on average, each writer picked about four titles that no one else did. (At least, I think that's right. I'm an editor, not a mathematician.)

Zane encourages readers to compile their own lists. ''It's a pretty interesting form of self-examination,'' he says. ''Start with, What do I like? and Why do I like it? Then think, When did I encounter these books? Did I read them all before I turned 18? Or have I read them all recently? There are no right answers. It's all about the books that matter to you.''

So I took his advice. I even spent a whole weekend noodling around with my list. And you know what? It's a lot harder to do than I thought. Did I want to include books because they were great, or because they moved me, or because they meant something to me personally? To make the final cut (my first list had about 40 titles on it!) it had to be a little of each, I decided.

My final 10 books are, simply put, part of the fabric of my life. There are many, many books I love, but these are the ones that inspire me, comfort me, and thrill me, over and over again. I grew up with Charlotte's Web, loved it, read it a million times, then read it to my daughters. I know it so well, I can say what happens on every page. I turn to Katherine Anne Porter's short stories and never fail to be amazed by their simple perfection. Porter wrote and rewrote, burnishing her words until they gleamed. I reread Updike's Rabbit novels every couple of years — as recently as last spring, when they wowed me all over again. Ditto with To Kill A Mockingbird. I take Pride and Prejudice and Tom Jones with me on vacation every year, like old friends. I have much of Emily Dickinson's poetry memorized; I read it at my grandmother's funeral and my father's. J.D. Salinger? I can't say I pick it up much now, but there was a time in my life when I was crazy about The Catcher In The Rye, and it stays with me as vividly as anything else.

So, here goes:

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Tom Jones by Henry Fielding
Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter
A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories by Flannery O'Connor
To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
the poetry of Emily Dickinson
Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
the Rabbit Angstrom novels by John Updike
Charlotte's Web by E.B. White
The Catcher In the Rye by J.D. Salinger

Any of you up for the challenge?

Originally posted Feb 20, 2007