Books I Love is a series where writers talk about the books that inspired them, the books they keep coming back to, and the books they'll always remember.

It would be impossible to narrow down the list of books I love—like winnowing down friends: “You I like for your pixie-ish insouciance. You, for the shimmering wonder of your prose.” (For the record, I happen to think all of my friends shimmer and…insouciant…with pixie-ish, proseful wonder.) Instead, I’ve listed favorite books that have also had a seismic influence on me.

Now I’ve done it—I’ve hurt the feelings of all of the other books in my house. I will face the burning glares of their spines when I return home.

Pastoralia by George Saunders - If Samuel Beckett and “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” had a love child, and that love child was raised in a strange theme park commune by Uncle Frank Zappa with an occasional visit from Thomas Pynchon and Warren Zevon, that love child would be this book. (Those of you not scared away by that description are now furiously downloading it.) I first read it while sitting in the doctor’s office with a 101-degree fever. After I read the first page, I laughed out loud and thought, wow, that fever is something: I’m hallucinating this story because this could not possibly be happening. Oh, but it was—and it was just the opening salvo of amazing strange that was about to blow my mind. Funny, weird, surreal, angry, heartbreaking, desperate, haunting, brutally honest about what it is to be human and yet limned with forgiveness, Pastoralia probably comes closest to being my favorite book. That’s why if there were a Teen Beat poster of George Saunders, I’d hang it in my room.

Not that that would be creepy. Not at all.

The Hotel New Hampshire by John Irving - My mother, a high school English teacher, handed this to me one day with a wicked grin and said, “This one’s for you.” She was right, as she is in so many things. It was love at first page.

Hailing from a theatrically eccentric family myself, I felt right at home with the outlandishly-odd-but-lovable Berry clan—a family of big dreamers, depressives, truth chroniclers, taxidermy appreciators (Where’s The Bloggess when you need her?), illusion spinners, and Bear connoisseurs who run a hotel first in New Hampshire, then in Vienna. It was unlike anything I had read, like a counterculture, American Dickens, layered in dysfunction and wonder, and I never wanted to stop reading it, even when I was sobbing into a Kleenex over its unexpected tragic turns. Poignant yet hopeful, it was a story that taught me that “Sorrow floats” but you’ve just got to “keep passing those open windows.” Now, I’m getting misty, dammit.

Every time I write a book, I always wish I could write one as perfect as this one is.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte - So much of the literature we had to read for high school English class was filled with victimized, tragic, symbolic women who spurred the plot forward with their inevitable shunning/death/shunning-followed-by-pregnancy-followed-by-death timelines. (I’m looking at you, Tess. Here’s mud in your eye, Hester.) Then along came this book with a heroine who was opinionated, prickly, kick-ass, plain, and who had absolutely zero interest in making anyone like her. Sure, she had some romantic issues. (The password is: psychoticladyintheattic.) But she wasn’t putting her head on the train tracks, either. I also loved that the story left Rochester behind for a long time and went somewhere else entirely—because, p.s., the story is called Jane Eyre, bitches.

After suffering through the insufferable Tess of the D’Ubervilles (sorry, Hardy fans), I was grateful to find kinship with a dame who was likely to tell a smug Victorian jerk exactly where s/he could get off. This also brought on my love of the gothic.

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger - When I was sixteen years old, this book was my jam. This time, it was my beloved high school English teacher, Willa Mae Burlage, who encouraged me to find this in the public library and give it a try. Holden Caulfield quickly became my secret alter ego, the voice for my teenage angst. I was so in love with this book that, for a short bit, I adopted a slightly East Coast prep school persona (in my North Texas small town) and a habit of sneering at things that I found phony, which, I mean, way to miss the point, kid. Any book that can help you survive the slings and arrows of adolescence is a book to love for life; The Catcher in the Rye did just that, and I still do love it.

I will try to ignore that it is also the preferred tome of serial killers and assassins.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou - Once again, it was my mother who guided me to this book. I was in fifth or sixth grade, an outsider dealing with bullies, and I found strength in Angelou’s brave, autobiographical account of growing up under the oppressive fist of racism and sexual abuse. It was brutal at times, and unflinching and unwavering in its truth, which made me trust the narrator completely, willingly going wherever she would lead. Maya’s ability to endure and overcome, to speak her truth no matter how frightening, was inspiring to me. It also connected me to a larger world, raised my consciousness about social injustice, and opened the door to writers like Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, and Amiri Baraka. Finally, it made me understand the power of story to witness, to fight back, to unite, to heal, and to transform. I know Ms. Angelou’s story transformed me.

Watchmen by Alan Moore - You know that moment in The Matrix when Neo takes the red pill and is plunged into the real world? That’s what it felt like when I first read Watchmen—like someone was taking a can opener to my head to make room for Moore’s audacious brilliance. That he could tell a dark, political tale about idealism and utopianism gone wrong in comic book form with a non-linear structure AND work Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera into the symbolism of a tale within a tale blew me away and shattered my assumptions about storytelling. Whenever I’m asked which book I wish I’d written, I usually say this one.

The Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard - I’d never really been a fan of memoir until I read this one. I’m pretty sure Jo Ann Beard could chronicle a trip to the frozen foods section, and I’d be riveted, nodding along, going, “Yes, that is exactly what it feels like to be a waffle.” Clear-eyed, dry-as-sawdust funny, and confessional without once lapsing into sentimentality, Beard wants to tell you her tale over Scotch, cigarettes, and car-radio Fleetwood Mac, but she doesn’t need you to pat her hand and make it better—which gives the memories she recounts a dignified elegance: a Liz Phair barfly on the stool next to you, having one last drink for the road. This is one of the books that taught me about putting some marrow on the page. Thanks, Ms. Beard.

Charlotte's Web by E.B. White - “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” Now, that’s how you open a story. I was a big reader as a kid, but it was Charlotte's Web that showed me you could feel as if you were actually living inside a book. As I remember, I had chicken pox and was home on the couch, scratching and reading about the trials of the animals on Mr. Zuckerman’s farm and of poor Wilbur, the Woody Allen of pigs, who was headed for the slaughter unless his best friend, Charlotte the spider, and an Avengers-style crew of barnyard animals could save him from his grisly fate through the power of language. I worried so for Wilbur, and {SPOILER ALERT} when his friends save the day, I was overjoyed…until E.B. White sucker punched me. That’s when I knew what it was to be completely in a book, because the pain in my heart was far greater than the discomfort of my rash.

Rats Saw God by Rob Thomas - I was a struggling playwright when my husband, Barry Goldblatt, who is also wise in all things bookish, suggested this book to me. I think what he actually said was, “If you don’t like this book, I don’t know you at all.” Fortunately, I turned out not to be his pod wife, because I did like it. In fact, I loved it. This is the book that turned me on to YA literature. Like Holden Caulfield’s snarkier successor, Steve York is a disaffected but smart teen, a big howl of pain wrapped up in arch observations who is coming to terms with the limitations of the world. The title comes from a Dada club Steve and his friends cook up in their high school as a little way of fighting back against conformity. When uniformed people look down on YA lit as being “immature” or “less than,” this is one of the titles I want to hand them. Then I want to pants them.

That Rob Thomas guy went on to make a little TV show called Veronica Mars. You know, I think he’s gonna be okay. We can all stop worrying about him.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams - During the single worst year of my life, I was lucky enough to find this book in the library, and it was one of the things that saved me. With lines like, “Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so” and “The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t,” it had me chortling within just a few chapters. I spent the night in my dorm room turning the pages and laughing out loud, Douglas Adams’s hilarious lunacy leading me gently back to life. To paraphrase another author on this list, “You take a laughing man, Esmé, and he always stands a chance of again becoming a man with all his fac—with all his f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s intact.”

It should also be noted that this book thoughtfully gives us the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything: 42. Now you can stop looking and go get pizza.

Libba Bray is the author of the new book The Diviners.