Truman Capote's In Cold Blood showed me how good journalism can get

Staying power

Newspapers - five of them each day — have consumed my reading hours for the past decade. That leaves little time for books, which often sit in stacks on my bedroom dresser, unopened, until they're finally returned to the library or to the friend who lent them. But it's the few good books - not the mundane details of a thousand newspaper stories — that are memorable. These are a few I value most:

Curious George: The Babar stories and The Cat in the Hat also helped me learn to read, but none of those characters was as cute as this little monkey.

• "The Gift of the Magi" and "To Build a Fire": I first heard these short stories — written by O. Henry and Jack London, respectively — when my elementary school teachers read them aloud in class. They revealed to me the power and magic of good writing.

The Little Prince: More magic.

The Jungle: When I was in junior high, Upton Sinclair's story of the hardships of turn-of-the-century immigrants and unscrupulous businessmen showed me a side of American life I didn't know existed.

1984 and Animal Farm: Orwell's horrific visions of totalitarian society propelled me through these two novels. Ten years later, I found his Down and Out in Paris and London just as riveting and much less distressing.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Manchild in the Promised Land: These books about ghetto life sparked my enduring interest in black literature. But the fiction of Jean Toomer and other, lesser-known black authors has more staying power. Like these lines spoken by a character in Toomer's short story "Blood-Burning Moon": "But words is like the spots on dice: no matter how y fumbles em, there's times when they jes wont come." And Langston Hughes and Sonia Sanchez and Ralph Ellison.

• Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha and Narcissus and Goldmund calmed my turbulent high school years. Hesse also gave me a peek at Jung, though I didn't know it then.

• Carl Sandburg's poems let me see what Chicago looked like before I saw it. But nothing captures the essence of America better than lines like these, from Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass: "The pure contralto sings in the organloft,/ The carpenter dresses his plank... the tongue of his foreplane whistles its wild ascending lisp,/ The married and unmarried children ride home to their thanksgiving dinner,/ The pilot seizes the king-pin, he heaves down with a strong arm...."

• William Faulkner's insights into the South and black-white relations made it worth struggling through Absalom, Absalom! And reading Faulkner also heightened the insights into human emotion offered by Sherwood Anderson (especially Winesburg, Ohio), Hemingway (The Sun Also Rises), James Agee (A Death in the Family), and most any short story by Raymond Carver.

• Truman Capote's In Cold Blood showed me how good journalism can get.

• Jack Nicholson is a great actor, and the fact that he and Meryl Streep couldn't rescue Ironweed is more a testimony to William Kennedy's writing ability than the actors' shortcomings.

• Joyce Carol Oates: Is there a more prolific and more riveting contemporary American author than the woman who wrote Wonderland?

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