1. "The Grapes of Wrath" by John Steinbeck - Vivid and immersive. I needed to read it really fast for a high school assignment (it was the first time I'd managed to read 100 pages of a book in a single day); luckily I got so caught up in the story that I *wanted* to be immersed in it.
2. "2010: Odyssey Two" by Arthur C. Clarke - the real start to my interest in science fiction as written literature (though I was already interested thanks to having seen the film of "2001: A Space Odyssey" at a very young age - I was confused yet intrigued by the film). Reading the book then seeing the solid 1984 film adaptation was early exposure to how adaptation works; though I miss the subplot involving the Chinese vessel the Tsien, I understand why it was cut, and why other changes were made. And I find it a meatier, more human-scale novel than the book "2001."
3. "The Battle of Brazil" by Jack Mathews - ...as in Terry Gilliam's "Brazil." A book about the studio politics that almost led to "Brazil" being released massively edited, until Gilliam and his producer used near-guerrilla tactics to get it released as it should be. Plus the book has the magical line "You can't drink in a gun club."
4. "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" by Douglas Adams/ "Don't Panic" by Neil Gaiman - a related one-two punch, so I'm listing them together. It's painfully obvious that high school-age me wanted to be Adams when he grew up, writing-wise; then Gaiman's book let me know more about the neurotic, often depressed and maddening but ultimately good person who was managing to be Douglas Adams. (By the way, somehow my first two exposures to "Hitchhiker's" didn't take; I saw and didn't understand or particularly like part of the BBC miniseries, then a year or so later I tried reading the book and somehow could not get past the first four chapters...THEN I tried the book again, and FINALLY got into it.)
5. "1984" by George Orwell - I keep wanting to use the disturbing shorthand "refs unpersons" (the note in Winston Smith's instructions to edit or erase written records that the state no longer wants on the record), perhaps as a title.
6. "Danse Macabre" by Stephen King - while my first King novel was "The Stand" (which I almost put on this list), I think I really started to appreciate King more through this in-depth non-fiction analysis of horror, his second book that I read. And more of his sense of humor is evident in this book, too.
7. "Dracula" by Bram Stoker - one hell of a plot-engine on that book; just the way the story is told adds to the excitement. I've read it three times, most recently in a neat interactive way: a LiveJournal community posted the entire novel, a section at a time, in chronological order over a six-month period.
8. "Supercarrier" by George C. Wilson - the book helped me get a better grasp of the job my dad was doing on aircraft carriers.
9. "The Late Shift" by Bill Carter - real drama behind the people who made us laugh late at night. Trivia provided by this book: NBC seriously considered giving David Letterman the M-F 10-11 slot as a way to keep him at NBC and resurrected the idea for Leno years later. Which was, of course, a disaster, and probably wouldn't have worked for Letterman, either. (This was almost "Adventures in the Screen Trade" by William Goldman.)
10. "Threshold" by Caitlin R. Kiernan (greygirlbeast) - though I almost have to make this three books, which I read fairly close together as I dove into her work. I also read her previous novel "Silk" and around the same time read her short story collection "From Weird and Distant Shores," and got deep into her poetic, Lovecraft-and-Bradbury-inspired work. I choose "Threshold" because I feel that's where Kiernan first truly clicked for me; I re-read the novel immediately after first reading it, which I almost never do.
11. My first Honorable Mention, which I added later: "Don Quijote" by Miguel de Cervantes. I took my time to read it (several months circa 2000, with my mom's high school copy), and it's a slow build that pays off like whoa in the second half. There's SO much more to this story than the windmills bit, which happens pretty early on. The book was originally published in two halves released 10 years apart; I love that after he'd published Part One, Cervantes realized he had a big honkin' continuity error...and found a way in Part Two to *explain away* that error, really cleverly. And, yep, it's very funny.