The Book That Changed My Life

Mark Bowden

Mark Bowden was a 1999 National Book Award Finalist in
Nonfiction for Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War

You ask me to list the books that have changed my life, no small task. I have been reading continually since I was about six years old, Bible stories, fairy tales and comic books were first, along with regular doses of LIFE magazine, which I looked forward to every week like a candy bar. From there it was on to books. Here are a few of the ones that come to mind immediately:

Samurai!, by Martin Caidin and Saburo Sakai, an account of WW2 through the eyes of Japan's leading fighter pilot, fascinating for both its action and its perspective on that war, which was startling and eye-opening for a Midwestern boy raised on John Wayne and Audie Murphy.

Hiroshima, by John Hersey, which demonstrated the power of great reporting and simple, straightforward writing. What is most amazing about the book is that it is not a tract or polemic, just a shocking and eloquent presentation of fact.

Politics and the English Language, by George Orwell, not a book but an essay, which notes the direct connection between clear writing and clear thinking, and argues for the deep importance of both.

Paradise Lost, by John Milton, the epic poem, for the inspirational richness and power of its narrative.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain, and Tom Jones, by Henry Fielding. Two of the funniest books ever written, demonstrating how good writing connects minds over centuries, asserting the universality of human experience.

Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway, for the powerful clarity of their language and stories.

As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner, for the hypnotic intensity of life imagined second by second.

Abraham Lincoln, The Prairie Years and The War Years, by Carl Sandburg, which introduced me to this country's most important politician and one of its best writers and thinkers, and ignited a lifelong interest in history.

Gravity's Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon, a dazzling display of plotting and language, research and imagination, dauntingly brilliant, profound, profane and dense, I read it in 1973 upon graduation from college with an English degree, and learned how little I knew.

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and The Right Stuff, by Tom Wolfe, which applied an eccentric and original writing style with extraordinarily talented reporting. Particularly The Right Stuff, which took a subject matter that everyone assumed had been exhaustively covered, the original seven astronauts, and effectively told their story for the first time. I was a young reporter when I read both of these books and was thrilled to the core by the potential they revealed for nonfiction. Wolfe's narrative skills, his descriptive powers, character development, with and insight outstripped any of the contemporary fiction I was reading, and convinced me that nonfiction could be literature of a very high order, perhaps the best work being done in English in my lifetime. I was struck particularly by Wolfe's ability to make something of the material he reported. His voice was the central character of both books, even though he never appears as a character in The Right Stuff. Caught in the demands of reporting and writing for a newspaper, Wolfe's books inspired me to look past the hasty efforts of daily journalism and continue to inspire me to this day.

A Fire on the Moon, by Norman Mailer, once you get past the first 50 pages of Mailer's self obsession, offers a virtuoso example of technical writing.

Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy, a powerful re-examination of the frontier myth.

The Snow Leopard, by Peter Matthiessen, an account of the author's spiritual journey into the Himalayas and his struggle to accept the death of his wife, and example of writing as crisp as the air at those high altitudes.

Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, by Roddy Doyle, with its fully-realized creation of a 10-year-old boy alive in an emotionally hazardous world illustrates for me again the potential of writing to connect lives and experience.