1. The Bible
Yes, I know, an obvious choice. Still, the Bible is the most-read and most influential book in the history of literature. It also gave rise to most of the moral underpinnings of our culture, whether we like it or not. If you do not know the Bible, you are not educated. Period.
2. Montaigne's Essays
Michel De Montaigne, a French nobleman, wrote a series of short writings, most of which are autobiographical or statements of personal beliefs. He called them L'Essais, or "Efforts," and we get our modern word essays from him. The charm of Montaingne is is honesty, his willingness to tell us the best and the worst about himself. I turn to Montainge again and again because he seemed to understand a basic edict of writing. When we write, to some extent, we always write about ourselves, even when we do not mean to. Montaigne took that thought and ran with it, creating one of the most beautiful self-explorations ever put into print.
3. Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
Walt Whitman was to poetry what Montaigne was to prose -- he put himself first. Whitman's poetry is a passionate exploration of himself, and what it means to be a self. Whitman believed that his "self" was first and foremost a human and an American. Thus Whitman's poetry remains, for me, the definitive statement of the meaning of being an American.
4. Huey Long by T. Harry Williams
The best biography I have ever read. Hilarious, insightful, and sad, it tells the story of a Louisiana politician who both brought the state of Louisiana into the the 20th Century and at the same time sowed the seeds of corruption that would prevent it from moving into the 21st. Williams recounts all of the funniest and most colorful stories of Huey Long lore in this book. It is the only book I have ever read in which I read all the footnotes because the details in the footnotes were often as funny as the main text itself.
I have one really good story to tell about Huey Long. When I was living in Virginia and going to medical school, I met a man at a block party who had lived in Louisiana for many years. This man had attracted a circle of people around him as he told funny stories about Louisiana politics. I listened to him for a few minutes, charmed, and then realized all of the stories he was telling came from this book.
5. Scientific Advertising by Claude Hopkins
Before I made the foolish decision to become a doctor, I worked as a catalog copywriter for Crutchfield, a mail order electronics company based in Charlottesville, Virginia. During my first month there a more experienced writer gave me a photocopy of this magnificent book. The introduction, written by David Ogilvy, another famous advertising man, trumpeted: "No one should be allowed have anything to do with advertising until he has read this book seven times." So I read it. Over and over. Ogilvy was right, absolutely right.
Claude Hopkins was an advertiser whose best years were in the first half of the twentieth century. His great contribution to advertising and marketing was that he insisted that it be scientific; that is, that ad design should be refined through hard data and research. Hopkins, for instance, loved the (then) innovation of the coupon, because if customers come in with a coupon from a given newspaper, the advertiser knows how much an ad in that paper is affecting sales. Hopkins also liked split runs, that is, the tactic of running one ad for one area of a paper's distribution, and a different ad for a different area. This allows the advertiser to gauge how different ads work in different communities.
The genius of Scientific Advertising is that it forced me to think about writing in terms of goals. Hopkins was insistent on one point above all others: The goal of ads is to sell product. It does not matter if the ad is pretty, or funny, or sexy. If it does not accomplish what it sets out to do (to sell product), then it needs to be junked. Writing is mainly about achieving a goal, and in the most efficient way possible.
Every time I sit down to write, I consider Hopkin's admonition. What is my goal, and how do I intend to accomplish it? If any sentence, any word, does not contribute to my aim, then it needs to be excised.
So what is my goal here? To get you to read Scientific Advertising! I promise you will not be disappointed. Satisifaction guaranteed or your money back. Not applicable in the states of Maryland, Florida, and parts of Utah.