2. In my teens, "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" and "Ulysses" by James Joyce; in my 20s, "The Book of Laughter and Forgetting" by Milan Kundera, Nabokov's "Lolita" and "Pale Fire," and "Love in the Time of Cholera" by Gabriel García Márquez; in my 30s, "The Information" by Martin Amis; in my 20s, 30s, 40s and forever, "Anna Karenina" by Leo Tolstoy.

Jonathan Franzen

Author of "The Corrections" and "Freedom"

1. "The Great Gatsby" byF. Scott Fitzgerald and "East of Eden" by John Steinbeck

2. Too many to list. A few highlights: "War and Peace" by Leo Tolstoy, "The Brothers Karamazov" by Fyodor Dostoevski, "The Magic Mountain" by Thomas Mann, "A Personal Matter" by Kenzaburo Oe, "Confessions of Zeno" by Italo Svevo, "In Search of Lost Time" by Marcel Proust, "The Beggar Maid" by Alice Munro and "Bleak House" by Charles Dickens.

Nikki Giovanni

Award-winning poet and author of "Gemini"

1. That's going to be a hard one. "Sula" by Toni Morrison is one of my very favorites, and I reread it regularly. Good and evil are not so easily defined, are they? I also think "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven" by Sherman Alexie should definitely be in the briefcase. "The Dew Breaker" by Edwidge Dandicat, because torture is a terrible thing and we must both stop torture and find a way of forgiving those who created this hell on earth. I would close my list with "Leaving Atlanta" by Tayari Jones, which takes a deep and powerful look at the Atlanta child murders.

2. Of course we all read, and had to read, the Russian classics. I found them trying, though my favorite Dostoevski is "Winter Notes on Summer Impressions." ... I thought an exile in Paris would be just the bee's knees, though I never as an adult considered exile. I had an interest in the history of WWII and did some reading in that area, but my favorite books were British. I adored Daphne du Maurier and, quite naturally, Agatha Christie. But one of the books that recently shot up to one of my very favorites is "The Elephant Keeper" by Christopher Nicholson. It makes the top favorite new book right along with "Song Yet Sung" by James McBride.

Pete Hamill

Author of "A Drinking Life" and "Tabloid City"

1. "The Great Gatsby" byF. Scott Fitzgerald. In elegantly crafted prose, we are given here a very American mixture of poetry, ambition, lies, delusions and aching pity. It remains our deepest prose version of the blues.

2. The one that first knocked me for a loop was "The Story of Babar"by Jean de Brunhoff. Later, when I could read and could make my own choices, it was "Treasure Island" by Robert Louis Stevenson with the illustrations by N.C. Wyeth. Others include: Short stories by Alice Munro, "On Love" by Stendhal, "Death in Venice" by Thomas Mann, "Diaries" by Cesare Pavese, everything by Charles Dickens, and the stories and plays of Anton Chekhov.

Oscar Hijuelos

Author of "The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love" and "Thoughts Without Cigarettes"

1. Well, for one, "Gem of the Ocean," a brilliant play by August Wilson, and in terms of (relatively) contemporary fiction, I rather think that Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man" and Rudy (Rudolfo) Anaya's "Bless Me Ultima" would be eye-opening. (And to go further back, "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" by Mr. Twain, of course.)

I think each speaks to a certain formative time in American history. Wilson addresses the legacy of slavery, while Ralph Ellison's novel addresses the emerging African-American male, at the cusp of a time when everything began to change in terms of civil rights. Anaya's book recounts a saga, taken from a certain moment in Mexican-American history, while Twain's very famous book offers a lyric and tender look at yet another time in pre-Civil War America. Of course my list could go on, but I think each of these books is a piece of the puzzle that comprises the collective, ever-emerging American identity.

2. Goodness. During my formative years as a writer, I very much liked Gabriel García Márquez and Jorge Luis Borges, but that would be the tip of an iceberg that included other writers like Julio Cortazar, Jose Donoso and Carlos Fuentes, all Latin Americans. At the same time, I was very much under the spell of two rather unlike writers — the Polish/British writer Joseph Conrad and, from Ireland, Flann O'Brien, whose fanciful works were always interesting to me, even if they hadn't anything to do with my Cuban ancestry.

Jonathan Lethem

Author of "The Ecstacy of Influence" and "Motherless Brooklyn"