What are the five favorite books you'd recommend everybody read at least once?
Oh man. I'm always so embarrassed answering questions like this, because even though I read a ton of stuff, I think that this sort of question shows up how plebian and genre-focused so much of my reading has been! I'm not ashamed to admit that I loved a book, even one that's quite bad by objective standards, but saying "This is so good everyone SHOULD read it!" is a whole other kettle of fish. So, this is more like my top five books I've read and re-read, and it isn't even really my top five anyhow (because I don't think I can narrow it down that much, and I'm sure that as soon as I hit "post" I'll think of a half-dozen more), but they're at the top, anyway.
1. Roots by Alex Haley. This book made such an impression on me that, 15 or 20 years later, I still vividly remember picking it up from my parents' bookshelves out of curiosity (this was par for the course with me; there wasn't anything I wasn't allowed to read, and the house was full of books, so I worked my way through them like a termite in a log) and how I read the first few pages to see what it was about, and ended up sitting right there on the floor and reading for the rest of the day. It made me think and feel like few books I've read before or since, and I think it probably had a bigger effect on my fantasy/SF writing than most of the fantasy and SF I've read.
2. Any good collection of SF short stories from the 1940s/50s/60s. I couldn't really narrow it down to a specific book, though of the books on my shelves, The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Vol. I and Great Science Fiction Tales of All Time between them seem to contain most of the stories I really love, the ones that made an impression on me growing up (e.g. "Cold Equations", "Mimsy Were the Borogoves") -- as well as some that I really hate which are still well-known and influential and brain-bending enough to be required reading for any genre fan or aspiring author (like "Nightfall" by Arthur C. Clarke ... possibly my least favorite SF story of all time, at least among stories which are actually good). The thing about these stories is that even if you aren't really into genre fiction, even if the social standards and technology is terribly dated, the ideas are just so incredible that they reshape the way you look at the world. They worm into your brain and stick, and ten years later you'll wake up in the middle of the night thinking about THAT STORY.
3. Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. People's reactions to this book seem to be fairly polarized -- it's an "OMG, I love this book, it's the most brilliant thing ever" or "OMG, this is an overhyped monstrosity, I can't believe people like it" kind of book. I fall into the "OMG brilliant" camp even though it has, admittedly, gigantic gaping narrative flaws -- to wit: half the book is brilliant, screamingly funny and has more ideas per square inch than almost anything I've read, and half of it is deadly dull. And they're all mixed together. No matter how many times I've read the book, there are parts of it that I honestly can't remember, because they were boring as hell. But the rest of it is more than fantastic enough to make up for it. There is no book in the world that makes me yearn for a sequel the way this one does, although with Terry Pratchett ill, it's unlikely there will ever be one.
4. Watership Down by Richard Adams. It's a love song to the natural world, it's one of the most fantastically inventive fantasies I've ever read, and it's gorgeously written and convincing and alive with detail. It manages to paint its protagonists as convincingly non-human in their thoughts and lives, while making them so sympathetic that reading a few pages from any part of the book draws you straight into their world. This is one of those books that makes me want to curl up into a little ball of artistic woe because I'll never ever write this well.
#5 is a tie, because there's a book that resonated with me incredibly as a teen, but as I grew up and matured, and especially the more I found out about the author (who is apparently a raging asshole) the less I liked the book. Which is very sad. But it still blew my mind as a young teen, so it needs to be here. And I've paired it up with another book, or rather set of books, that resonates with me in pretty much the exact same way as an adult. Taken together, I think they actually make a fascinating picture of the transition from childhood to adulthood for me, and the way that my reading tastes shifted while still remaining more or less constant at the core. One of these is a fairy tale, the other a myth, mapped upon late-20th-century America.
5 (old). Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin. A hundred years of New York City's history through a magic lens. The images that this book evoked in my teenage brain, of a winter-locked city where its subtle living magic was slowly swallowed by ever-more-complex technology, but still lived on underneath, capable of miracles, still brings tears to my eyes with its remembered beauty. The funny thing about this book, that I never even noticed at the time, is that the characters aren't really characters -- they're more like archetypes and mouthpieces for the themes of the book. That, I think, is the big reason why I slowly fell out of love with the book, because the characters don't really live. But the city lives, in its unreal way, and the language and description is gorgeous, and it overpowered my adolescent brain with a blitz of wonder -- it really hit some kind of deeply-buried button in my brain that I hadn't even known was there.
5 (new). The Drawing of the Three and The Waste Lands by Stephen King. I know this is book 2 & 3 of a 7-book series. I wish the whole series was good enough that I could recommend it. But screw it, I can't. This is the core of the series, though, and it soars -- dark, gorgeous, post-apocalyptic fantasy about four terribly broken people coming together to form a tiny family in a wilderness made up of twisted magic and shattered technology. I wish that the entire series consisted of books 2 and 3 and the first half of book 4. In my mind, that is the series. And I hadn't realized until making this list, and going down my mental list of favorite books, that this series hits me in pretty much the exact same way as Winter's Tale -- it's like a list of everything I love in fiction, only while Winter's Tale was everything I loved as a 13-year-old (horses, magic, fantastic cities that aren't what they seem, tragic doomed love, redemption, sacrifice, rebirth, snow and ice and the cold, sparkling beauty of winter), this is everything I love as an adult: the shattering and rebuilding of the human soul, friendship against all odds, complex and flawed characters, magic hidden in technology and vice versa, quests and journeys of the body and soul, learning to live on after you've lost everything. Both are about seeing the fantastic in the everyday -- in Winter's Tale it's wondrous, fantastic, fairy-tale magic that hides in everyday objects, magic capable of bringing the dead back to life; in Dark Tower it's more like the magic of old mythology, amoral and powerful and beyond the ability of humans to control.