1) Sphere by Michael Crichton
My dad got me hooked on Michael Crichton when I was in seventh grade. This was the first book I remember staying up all night to read. It is also the first book since the Magic School Bus that made me think science was awesome; Harry's explanations of the black hole and the space-time continuum were so clear to me. When I went to school and told my home-room teacher about the book, he said he had read it, too, and then blew my middle-schooler mind with the theory that, maybe, at the end, Beth doesn't give up the sphere's power at all.
2) Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
I read this in college. It took me a year to get through the whole thing, and then I read it again in a week. Dillard's encyclopaedic knowledge and close observation of nature is unrivaled, and the way she ties her themes of death, decay, and nature's cruelty together at the end with (somehow!) Christian apologetics was one of the most beautiful and complicated literary dances I had encountered at that point. She made me love non-fiction.
3) Orlando by Virginia Woolf
I was vacillating between Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, and then I remembered Orlando and it was no question. Woolf's novel spans centuries and is about a man who turns into a woman. The language is powerful, and so many times as I was reading I thought, "Yes! I've felt this very thing, but never expressed it!" I think this will turn into a yearly read for me.
4) Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
Ha, um, duh. These books shaped fantasy as we know it today. They were Tolkien's attempt to create a truly English mythology, and he draws on his expertise as a medieval scholar. The languages, the songs, the poetry, the background of the world he creates--they are stunning and immersive. And I love how his writing style changes based on whether he's writing about hobbits, or elves, or men.
5) The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis
C.S. Lewis is an author whose entire corpus affected me, but I chose this book because it's less well-known than some of his other works and because it gave me a rubric for thinking about friendship and love. I probably recall something from this book at least once a month, even though I read it in high school.
6) Anathem by Neal Stephenson
This is my favorite book. It starts in a monastery where the monks study science and philosophy. As such, the beginning is pretty slow (not that I personally have a problem with that; I wish every book was set in a monastery). However, by the end, the protagonist has lived through a fall into an Arctic glacial crevasse; a volcanic explosion; and a trip to space. So . . . it has everything. For some perspective on how much I love this book, I have periodically wondered if I should break up with Wil, as I'm not sure I can commit to someone who hasn't read it.
7) The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery
I've pretty much internalized L.M. Montgomery's entire corpus. I think my lifelong love of nature comes from identifying so closely with Anne of Green Gables, with her naming of lakes, avenues, and forest glades. But this little book is something special. It's a little more realistic, a little more grown-up, than the Anne, the Avonlea, or the Emily books; it's also her only book set outside of Prince Edward Island. It's about freedom and individualism, the love of nature, and a marriage of convenience that turns into romance.
8) Bleak House by Charles Dickens
Dickens is one of my favorite authors. After I read A Tale of Two Cities in high school, I started a yearly tradition of reading a Dickens novel on the beach on family vacations. I enjoyed the contrast of reading about a foggy, dirty, cobblestoned London while sunbathing in the hot sterility of a Florida beach. Bleak House is just the most Dickens-iest of the Dickens novels. The plot is complex and interlocking, like a puzzle, and Dickens strident moral tone is balanced by his endearing comic characters.
9) The Annotated Alice, by Lewis Carroll and Martin Gardner
Alice in Wonderland is as smart, funny, and well-crafted as Arrested Development, with just as many inside jokes. The only problem is, we don't get many of the jokes today. This book is great because it provides tons of nerdy context and explanations for all of Carroll's marvelous madness. If Sphere convinced me I could like science, the Annotated Alice made me think I might be able to like math. Charles Dodgson (Carroll's real name) was, after all, a mathematician.
10) The Chess Garden by Brooks Hansen
This is the dark horse on the list, in that I have so many books I'd love to include but not enough space. I chose this one because, unlike the others I might have chosen, many people haven't heard of this one. It's a weird book: the life of Dr. Uyterhoeven as he becomes a physician and serves in the Boer War in South Africa, juxtaposed against his letters home which describe fantastical adventures in the Antipodes, a magical land peopled by live game pieces. It is definitely a weird book, but the fantasy parts in particular are like crack for my imagination; they showed me how cool and strange fantasy could be when it departed from stereotypical fairy-tale tropes and entered the world of dream-logic.