Every blogger and their mother is doing it. In chronological order:
1)Charlotte's Web by E.B. White. The first chapter book I ever read at age five. I broke down crying at the final chapter when Charlotte died. My mother tells me that I explained to her first that I was sad about Charlotte's death, but also because the book was over. I suppose you could say that this book clinched me as a lifelong reader; Barnes & Noble and Amazon have it to thank for all the business I've since sent their way.
"It is not often that someone comes along who is both a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both" also remain two of my favorite sentences in the English language.
2)Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte: I found this in the school library in March of the year when I was in fifth grade. It really wasn't supposed to be shelved with the books for fourth or sixth graders, but the librarian let it slip. It was harder going than anything I'd yet encountered, but I was electrified. I'd probably find it unbearably melodramatic if I had to go back and read it now, but I haven't yet been able to shake myself of a weakness for the Victorians.
3) Atlas Shrugged/The Fountainhead/We The Living -- As the libertarian in joke goes, it usually begins with Ayn Rand. As it did in my case. I read all three of the novels in a mad race in seventh grade. I'm no longer a hard Randian, but I got the basics of my political and economic views from her. I also became an agnostic and then an atheist because of Rand, which brings me to...
4)Elmer Gantryby Sinclair Lewis -- Other than Rand, the work that sealed the deal on my early teenage atheism. Also, Sinclair Lewis first brought to the surface my disdain for small town America, which hasn't really faded away. Pnin thinks it strange that my views on the place where I grew up were largely shaped by novels written in the 1920s, but I maintain that there were a lot of parallels between the Midwest of Lewis's novels and the Allentown of the 1990s.
5)1984 and Animal Farm by George Orwell: Orwell made me a hard-line anti-totalitarian. Not a libertarian per se -- Orwell was hardly one himself -- but certainly anti-totalitarian. Also, this is an early influence -- I read both in middle school.
6)Paul Fussell's Class/David Brooks's Bobos in Paradise -- The two books, both of which I read in college and then again a few times afterwards, which helped me best understand the peculiarities of the social class I'd come to inhabit. I also find myself channeling Fusell and Brooks stylistically -- sometimes consciously, sometimes not -- whenever I write fluff. I realize both can be unbelievably pretentious. I'm trying to get over that. Please bear with me, friends.
7)The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe -- Yes, there's much to hate about Wolfe. But he showed me that contemporary fiction could involve more than the art of writing exquisitely about nothing at all.*
Tyler Cowen asked me once what kind of book I would really like to read that isn't being sold in bookstores. I responded, "A Tom Wolfe novel that doesn't have the flaws of Tom Wolfe's novels." What I meant was roughly "more doorstop sized novels that are panoramic in scope and that tackle big social and political questions."
8)On Liberty by John Stuart Mill -- My favorite free speech absolutist. I still quote him all too frequently here on the blog. He's also wonderful on why we ought to be broad-minded in tolerating eccentricity. I quote him on that point too probably all too often.
9)Democracy in America/The Old Regime and the Revolution by Alexis de Tocqueville -- Read both in college. They profoundly influenced how I think about social change and the nature of revolutions. Also, the former on American exceptionalism.
10) Richard Pipes's work on Russia -- I read Russian Under the Old Regime for a college course and followed up soon with Pipes's books on the Russian Revolution and Russia under the Bolshevik regime. First, I found Pipes's explanation of why Russia went Communist more compelling than anything I'd read on the subject yet. He also sold me on the value of rock guys in understanding how liberal democracies take root.
*I'm paraphrasing a famous quote, but Google's not turning up the source. Anyone?
**The outtakes that I know some of you will ask about: yes, I know, Hayek. If I could go up to #11, he'd be there. As it is, there's actually not much I get from Hayek that I didn't get from Rand or others on this list. #12 would be Middlemarch by George Eliot for shaping my sense of what a good novel ought to do.