AN AMERICAN CHILDHOOD
By Annie Dillard (Harper)
Nowadays it's unusual to read a memoir of a happy childhood, and there are passages in here that I find quietly hilarious, but those aren't what makes this such a great book. Dillard can write nonfiction that's more vivid and compelling than most novelists' fiction, and this book captures youthful wonderment at being alive and connected to the world better than any novel I can think of.
By Gene Wolfe (Orb)
This is not the novel of Wolfe's that most awed me when I first read it (that would be The Book of the New Sun), but it's the one that I find my thoughts returning to most often. It's mysterious but doesn't feel willfully obscure. In my own writing I've tried to use a trick or two that I found here, but I could never replicate this novel's elusiveness.
ASIMOV'S GUIDE TO SCIENCE
By Isaac Asimov (Basic)
This may seem like an odd choice, but in the context of my entire life rather than just my adulthood, this might be the book that had the most profound influence on me in the way it shaped my Intellectual curiosity. Twenty-five years after reading it, I still remember how Eratosthenes estimated the Earth's diameter by measuring shadows at noon, and how Cavendish measured the Earth's weight using lead weights hanging from a thread.