My list follows:
The Catcher In The Rye - J.D. Salinger - Show me a teenager who hasn't read this, and I'll show you a teenager who hasn't read it yet. It sums up everything there is to say about being between Phoebe's age and Holden Caulfield's parents' ages, with nod to the ageless Allie, somewhere between the two forever.
The Ring Lardner Reader - Ring Lardner - The master of American colloquial writing, Lardner was an expert chronicler of baseball, war, and life among the hopeful and hopeless.
How To Talk Dirty and Influence People - Lenny Bruce - When I was a kid, people said Lenny was a "dirty" comedian, which is like describing the Mona Lisa as an "old" painting. Lenny skewered the hypocrites, the racists, and the warmongers like they had never been skewered before or since.
Up In The Old Hotel - Joseph Mitchell - Mitchell wrote for The New Yorker about life on the more seedy and salty sides of New York from 1938 - 1964, although he remained in the employ of the magazine until his death in 1996. He suffered 32 years of writer's block, never publishing another word after his final book, "Joe Gould's Secret." Fascinating man.
In Cold Blood - Truman Capote - Capote took the notion of writing about a real crime as if it were a novel in the story of the murders of the Clutter family in Kansas in 1959. Not a whodunit or a how-did-he-do-it, more of an example of great writing and investigation.
Yes, I Can - Sammy Davis, Jr. - If this story of a man who never attended school or had formal instruction in singing, dancing, acting, doing impressions or playing music, and yet became a master of all those arts, had been fiction, people would have considered it too far-fetched. There was only one Sammy, the man who once said "There are only three people who matter to me: Sammy, Davis, and Junior."
The Keillor Reader - Garrison Keillor - The Bard of Lake Wobegon recently published this collection of radio transcripts, speeches, newspaper columns and the like. A multi-talented man, much like Sammy, but with the ego pointing inwardly.
Washington Goes to War - David Brinkley - Longtime NBC news anchor, and the man for whom the word "wry" seems to have been invented, wrote about DC in the World War II era. His autobiography is also fascinating, if only for being the only autobiography I can recall by a person who said his mother just didn't seem to like him very much. Hey, I guess it happens.
Chips Off The Old Benchley - Robert Benchley - Essayist, Broadway critic for The New Yorker, movie actor, and wit. In all his comic essays, he portrayed himself as a whimsical semi-fool, hiding the fact that in real life he was a serial philanderer and serious alcoholic. I'm grateful for not having known that when I fell in love with the words of the bumbling semi-fool.
On The Road - Jack Kerouac - The beatnik bible, the story of the man who fell under the spell of wanderlust in postwar America and started an entire new trend in writing.
The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby - Tom Wolfe - speaking of new trends in writing, this is the first volume collecting former newspaperman Wolfe's writings as he led the way into the New Journalism - telling the facts with pizzaz and lots of onomatopoeia. Bang! Zoom! You gotta read this book! Here is one sentence from his article on stock car racer/moonshiner Junior Johnson: "Cars, miles of cars, in every direction, millions of cars, pastel cars, aqua green, aqua blue, aqua beige, aqua buff, aqua dawn, aqua dusk, aqua Malacca, Malacca lacquer, Cloud lavender, Assassin pink, Rake-a-cheek raspberry, Nude Strand coral, Honest Thrill orange, and Baby Fawn Lust cream-colored cars are all going to the stock car races, and that old mothering North Carolina sun keeps exploding off the windshields." Not the sort of writing we had seen before.
Crackpot: The Obsessions of John Waters - John Waters - Baltimore's gift to oddball living shows his versatility: filmmaker-turned-essayist.
The Entertainer - Margaret Talbot - I love this book, written by New Yorker staff writer Talbot about her father, character actor Lyle Talbot, the eternal sidekick in movies and TV (and also father of Stephen Talbot, who played Gilbert on "Leave It To Beaver" and is now an award-winning documentarian). Lyle's career began in tent shows and medicine shows and circuses, and the story is the story of American show business in the 20th Century seen through the eyes of someone who worked in most aspects of that business.
The Little Engine That Could - Platt and Munk - The first book I ever read, and it gave me encouragement to read more, so I haven't stopped.
Webster's Dictionary - Noah Webster et al - Because, every word in the other books is in this one, too. It's just a matter of arranging them nicely.
And now that I finish, I realize I left out Jean Shepherd, John Updike, Studs Terkel, Roger Kahn, E.B. White, and dozens of authors I also love.
Let's do this again soon!