‘Exponent’ Staff Picks: Our Five Most Influential Books

library shelves filled with books
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We’re in the dog days of summer now, limping along from one air conditioned haven to another, trying to escape the humidity and heat, or dashing onto a porch to escape a sudden summer shower. But if August seems like a bit of a slog, here’s something to brighten it up: It’s the perfect time to get in the last of your summer reading and get ready for new fall book releases.

It’s also a good time to while away the hours revisiting some of your old favorites, which is what the Exponent staff did when we each sat down to come up with a list of five books that have influenced us the most. Have a list of your own?

Liz Spikol, editor-in-chief

1. The Idiot, Fyodor Dostoyevsky. I read this at a dark time in my life, when I was dealing with an illness that prevented me from engaging in everyday life. The book’s protagonist has epilepsy, and is an outcast in Russian society. I related to his alienation and took comfort in his company as we both made our way through worlds that were hostile to us. Books are good friends.

2. The Genius of Birds, Jennifer Ackerman. Isn’t is strange how you can see something your whole life and never really see it? I liked birds before I read this book, but learning about their brains, their cognition, their similarities to humans completely altered the way I interact with the world. Now, even a short walk from the office to the train station is filled with wonder, as I watch sparrows living out their tiny, fascinating, largely unexamined lives as we graceless humans clomp on by.

3. The Soul of an Octopus, Sy Montgomery. If I never thought much about birds, I probably thought less about octopus. It turns out, they are remarkable creatures whose consciousness is so complex, they’re more like ultrasophisticated aliens rather than fellow animals. Soul made me realize how much we don’t know about animals — and heavily influenced my decision to become a vegetarian.

4. Portnoy’s Complaint, Phillip Roth. At the time I read this (too young, surely), there weren’t many Jewish people on TV or in popular culture. So what a kick to see the East Coast, vulgar, profane, hilarious, intellectual, deeply feeling, fully Jewish human beings from my own life represented in a book! Portnoy’s also honed my instinct to be authentically myself, warts and all, in my own writing.

5. Orientalism, Edward Said. I know, I know — Said was controversial, to say the least. But when I went to grad school to study translation theory in the ’90s, the postcolonial curriculum owed everything to his positioning of the West vs. the Other in this book. His thinking helped reshape the academy’s approach to black and brown cultures ages before you could take online quizzes about implicit bias. For me, Said provided a new way of understanding my place in the world — a consciousness I carry even now.

Andy Gotlieb, managing editor

1. In Cold Blood, Truman Capote. The detailed reporting and crisp writing made me want to be a journalist.

2. Green Eggs and Ham, Dr. Seuss. As a small boy I used to eat eggs every day for breakfast. But if the unnamed character that Sam-I-Am pesters to eat eggs wasn’t going to eat them (even though he does in the end), neither was I. To this day, I despise eggs. Now that’s an influential book.

3. The Stand, Stephen King. This was the first “grown up” book I read, and I loved every page. King isn’t always the best writer, but he sure knows how to spin a tale, which is the name of the game.

4. Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck. I enjoyed everything he wrote, so choosing one book is difficult. He mastered the ability to be both descriptive and understated.

5. The Lottery and Other Stories, Shirley Jackson. I remember my jaw dropped reading The Lottery. The rest of Jackson’s work is outstanding, too, especially her short stories, which can seamlessly blend horror, humor and even some Erma Bombeck-ian elements.

Selah Maya Zighelboim, digital editor

1. The Devil’s Highway: A True Story, Luis Alberto Urrea. The narrative of this nonfictional story, about a group of Mexican men who get lost crossing the border shortly after 9/11 and die in the desert, would be gripping on its own, but its creative storytelling style takes it to another level. I continue to find the style of this book inspirational.

2. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, J.K. Rowling. Yes, I know. Could anything be more millennial of me than including a Harry Potter book on this list? But honestly, it would be a lie if I didn’t mention the series that got me into reading. I chose this specific book from the series because I became a fluent reader reading this one.

3. The Five Books of Miriam: A Woman’s Commentary on the Torah, Ellen Frankel. I received this book as a Bat Mitzvah present and loved the spirit of it. It’s a wonderful blend of Judaism, feminism, spirituality and midrash.

4. Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation Is Changing Your World, Don Tapscott. I’m pretty sure if I reread this now I would find it somewhat ridiculous, but I’m giving it a shout out because it showed me that I could enjoy reading something nonfiction.

5. An American Bride in Kabul: A Memoir, Phyllis Chesler. I kept going back and forth about whether to include this on the list. I did in the end because, wow, what a challenging book.

Jesse Bernstein, staff writer

1. Postwar, Tony Judt. The history of Europe, from 1945-2005. This book a) proves beyond doubt that social democracy is the best form of government, b) taught me the jeer, “Thatcher, Thatcher, milk snatcher”, and also c) that the Balkans are wild.

2. The Last of the Just, André Schwarz-Bart. The greatest Holocaust novel ever written, and it’s barely about the Holocaust. It’s a story of, like, a dozen generations of a Jewish family, who mostly live ghastly, degrading lives, with a few moments of godly transcendence.

3. Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace. Sue me!

4. Bad Behavior, Mary Gaitskill. I could have picked any Gaitskill short story collection here, but this one is probably the best. If I forget what a perfect short story reads like, I flip to “The Girl On The Plane” in this collection. In my opinion? Mary GOATskill.

5. Chain of Command, Seymour Hersh. Perhaps this shows my age — 23 — but I didn’t know much of anything about Abu Ghraib or the beginning of the war in Iraq before I read this book. I would recommend this one for the still-malleable brains of American teens.

Eric Schucht, staff writer

1. Critical Path: How to Review Videogames for a Living, Dan Amrich. This was the first resource I encountered to tell me a career in writing was possible. While I never did become a professional video game reviewer, I don’t think I’d be where I am today without this book inspiring me.

2. Rebel Without a Crew: Or How a 23-Year-Old Filmmaker with $7,000 Became a Hollywood Player, Robert Rodriguez. I tried becoming a video journalist after reading this on the recommendation of my favorite filmmaker, James Rolfe. While a great read, I don’t think I’ll end up using those minors in film studies or multimedia after all.

3. The Sandman, Neil Gaiman. My favorite graphic novel series of all time. If comics aren’t your thing, this might change your mind.

4. When You Are Engulfed in Flames, David Sedaris. My English teacher senior year of high school gave this to me and said, “One day, you’re going to write something people will want to read.” So if you somehow ever read this, Mr. O’Donnell, thank you for believing in me.

5. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King. This is actually the only book of King’s I’ve ever read. Half-autobiography. Half-writer’s guide. All incredible. A required read for all aspiring writers.

Rachel Winicov, intern

1. The Witches, Roald Dahl. A thrilling fantasy tale featuring a young English boy and, yes, evil witches, this story lived on my nightstand throughout elementary school. Not to spoil the wonderful plot, but let’s just say that I am still scared of mice, largely because of Dahl’s masterful language.

2. This is Water, David Foster Wallace. I may be cheating by including this one because it was originally written as a speech. Nevertheless, Wallace takes his signature philosophy and creates an accessible narrative in this work, one that brims with parables and advice but never comes across as cliche.

3. The Republic, Plato. At the risk of sounding like a total nerd, I am a classics major in college. That distinction is wholly because I took a freshman seminar devoted to this work. Hidden in relatable parables, Plato’s moral messages resonate even harder.

4. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, John Boyne. We read this book in Hebrew school in the year leading up to our Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. The twist ending of this book truly cemented the horrors of the Holocaust in my mind, never to be forgotten.

5. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J.K. Rowling. While I’m not a huge Potter-head anymore, my middle school evenings were full of mock Quidditch matches and secret spells. This first book in the series sparked a passion for devouring novels and netted me a close group of friends, many of whom I still talk to today,


  1. Really surprised that not one staffer mentioned either ‘The Source’ by James Michener (my all-time favorite) or ‘Exodus’ by Leon Uris, arguably 2 of the top 10 books on Israel/things Jewish ever.


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