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.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of This Boy's Life: A Memoir

Why did I love 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.

By Tobias Wolff,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked This Boy's Life as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“A classic of the genre.”―New York Times

The 30th anniversary edition of Tobias Wolff's "extraordinary memoir" (SF Chronicle), now with a new introduction by the author.

Thirty years ago Tobias Wolff wrote a memoir that changed the form. The “unforgettable” (Time) This Boy’s Life is the story of the young, tough-on-the-outside but vulnerable Toby Wolff. Separated by divorce from his father and brother, Toby and his mother travel from Florida to Utah to a small village in Washington state, with many stops along the way. As each place doesn’t quite work out, they pick up to find somewhere new. In…

The Car Thief

By Theodore Weesner,

Book cover of The Car Thief

Why did I love 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.

By Theodore Weesner,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Car Thief as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Hailed by The Boston Globe as "so poignant and beautifully written, so true and painful, that one can't read it without feeling the knife's cruel blade in the heart," The Car Thief was first published to enormous popularity, and sold over half a million copies. Alex Housman is a kid who at the age of sixteen has had fourteen cars, harbors many hurts, and seems to fade into his environment while raging inside. His father is an alcoholic, losing his grip on life even as he wants the best for his son. The Car Thief explores the love Alex and…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Jim Carroll,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Basketball Diaries as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The urban classic coming-of-age story about sex, drugs, and basketball

Jim Carroll grew up to become a renowned poet and punk rocker. But in this memoir of the mid-1960s, set during his coming-of-age from 12 to 15, he was a rebellious teenager making a place and a name for himself on the unforgiving streets of New York City. During these years, he chronicled his experiences, and the result is a diary of unparalleled candor that conveys his alternately hilarious and terrifying teenage existence. Here is Carroll prowling New York City--playing basketball, hustling, stealing, getting high, getting hooked, and searching for…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Tadeusz Borowski,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Tadeusz Borowski's concentration camp stories were based on his own experiences surviving Auschwitz and Dachau. In spare, brutal prose he describes a world where where the will to survive overrides compassion and prisoners eat, work and sleep a few yards from where others are murdered; where the difference between human beings is reduced to a second bowl of soup, an extra blanket or the luxury of a pair of shoes with thick soles; and where the line between normality and abnormality vanishes. Published in Poland after the Second World War, these stories constitute a masterwork of world literature.

The Street of Crocodiles

By Bruno Schulz, Celina Wieniewska (translator),

Book cover of The Street of Crocodiles

Why did I love 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.

By Bruno Schulz, Celina Wieniewska (translator),

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Street of Crocodiles as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A novel that blends the real and the fantastic, from "one of the most original imaginations in modern Europe" (Cynthia Ozick) 

The Street of Crocodiles in the Polish city of Drogobych is a street of memories and dreams where recollections of Bruno Schulz's uncommon boyhood and of the eerie side of his merchant family's life are evoked in a startling blend of the real and the fantastic. Most memorable - and most chilling - is the portrait of the author's father, a maddened shopkeeper who imports rare birds' eggs to hatch in his attic, who believes tailors' dummies should be…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in childhood, Poland, and concentration camps?

9,000+ 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 174 books about childhood
Poland Explore 104 books about Poland
Concentration Camps Explore 31 books about concentration camps