The best books about what drives us to survive and tell the story that keeps another soul alive

Who am I?

I read a lot of first-person books because I write a lot of 1st person books. I was a creative writing teacher for twenty years and I wanted my students to ‘own’ their material—to write about what they saw and felt and empathized with and loved and feared. These book recommendations below are only a handful of immensely brilliant books that have strong character/narrator voices that put you inside the skin of the narrator. These are the books that are recklessly beautiful and ruthlessly genuine-- and by example teach you how to write honestly and how to capture your own readers.

I wrote...

Hole in My Life

By Jack Gantos,

Book cover of Hole in My Life

What is my book about?

When I was in high school I was a smart kid, a reader, and I lived in a welfare rooming house in Florida. I worked in a grocery store. I had great friends and I led a fast life. I graduated and moved to St. Croix in the Virgin Islands. To make money on the side I sold drugs. Then I joined a team of British smugglers and sailed a yacht with a ton of hashish to new york city. It was a glorious sailing adventure.

But it didn’t work out as well as I had imagined I wanted it to, however. I was caught and I was given six years in prison. This book is my personal story about how reading books saved my life…and how I became a writer.

The books I picked & why

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This Boy's Life: A Memoir

By Tobias Wolff,

Book cover of This Boy's Life: A Memoir

Why this book?

I admire this book because the teen character is deeply honest with how he describes the difficult, contentious world around him, and the world within him. He gets it, and he uses the language in a plain prose style that lets the voice, the action, the images, and the drama hit home inside the reader. Once you enter this book, and are captured by the beauty and authenticity, then you can’t put it down because it holds a mirror up to your own interior life.

The Car Thief

By Theodore Weesner,

Book cover of The Car Thief

Why this book?

I knew Ted Weesner. We taught creative writing at Emerson College. This is Ted’s first book which still gives me chills because of how filmic the prose is—as in stepping into a film—only it is not only visual, it is visceral. You feel every part of this book and feel it deeply, sympathetically, and even though the main character is making mistakes his mistakes are your mistakes, his disappointments are your disappointments, his hopes are your hopes and thus his tragedy is yours to keep.

The Basketball Diaries: The Classic about Growing Up Hip on New York's Mean Streets

By Jim Carroll,

Book cover of The Basketball Diaries: The Classic about Growing Up Hip on New York's Mean Streets

Why this book?

This is the New York City “classic” rock-n-roll, basketball-playing, bad behaving, love life chasing, down and dirty poetic feel-good like a young god book. You have to read this whip-smart, live life to the fullest, see-it-all book set in NYC. After you read this book you will move there because you’ll be addicted to the literary electricity in this book.

This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen

By Tadeusz Borowski,

Book cover of This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen

Why this book?

The most engaging, genuine, soul-crushing, holocaust/concentration camp book I’ve ever read and I’ve read them all. And read his bio, too. Crisp, clear writing allows all the horror of the concentration camp to roll over your soul. You have nowhere to hide when you read this book—the honesty is pure and brutal. Yet, the soulful fallout never really leaves you fully crushed—otherwise, you would never feel the agony of humanity over and over again.

The Street of Crocodiles

By Bruno Schulz, Celina Wieniewska (translator),

Book cover of The Street of Crocodiles

Why this book?

Simply put: the writing is magnificent. Beautiful, poetic, surprising, surreal, and yet exceptionally real. It’s a book of short stories that reads like a novel. Set in Poland during WWII. Schulz was a genius at capturing the world of his Nazi-occupied town and all who lived there. This book exists as if it were its own universe in a glass orb. It’s a “push-pull” read: you want to live Schulz’s life and you want to avoid it in equal measures.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in childhood, Poland, and concentration camps?

5,810 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about childhood, Poland, and concentration camps.

Childhood Explore 117 books about childhood
Poland Explore 77 books about Poland
Concentration Camps Explore 30 books about concentration camps

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Methland, Story of a Girl, and Winter's Bone if you like this list.