The Books, Music and Films that Made Me

The Books, Music and Films that Made Me November 24, 2012

The author many years ago.

Recently, one of my students mentioned that he’d be curious to see a list of general recommendations I might have in terms of arts and literature. Not long after, in an interesting coincidence, Cornel West’s Hope on a Tightrope: Words and Wisdom found itself on my reading table: Dr. West ends the book with a list of the books and music that “made him.” I took that as a hint from the universe that I should take a moment to answer my student. I’m not sure how interesting this will be to the rest of you, but it was a good exercise for me and I hope it directs somebody to something that transforms them as much as it did me.

Like Dr. West, I feel deeply shaped by certain books and pieces of music. I also feel deeply shaped by quite a few films as well. (I was once a film major — it’s a medium that speaks to me.)

I’ve chosen to stick with Dr. West’s way of doing the lists: by artist’s name, with the specifically influential works noted.

Again, these are works that “made me” — not an attempt to name the “bests” in these areas. (I’m aware, for example, that no films by Howard Hawks, Federico Fellini, Ernst Lubitsch, Luis Buñuel, Satyajit Ray, Nicholas Ray, Mike Nichols, Preston Sturges, or Quentin Tarantino — to name just a few — make the cut. That’s simply because I don’t necessarily “feel” the influence of their work in my life the way I most certainly do with the others I’ve listed.)

In terms of process, I simply listed as fast as I could — “first thought, best thought” — and then went back a second time and added things that it occurred to me were missing. I have invariably forgotten important influences, but I think each is fairly representative of the works of art and literature that have made me the fellow I am today.

Please enjoy. And please share yours with us in the comments if you’re so inclined!

*   *   *


Terrence Malick – whole corpus, but especially The Thin Red Line and The Tree of Life

Errol Morris – whole corpus, but especially The Thin Blue Line and The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara

Charles Chaplin – whole corpus, but especially Modern Times, City Lights, and The Great Dictator

Steven SpielbergLincoln, Schindler’s List, Munich, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, Amistad, Empire of the Sun, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, War Horse, Catch Me If You Can, and The Sugarland Express

Spike Lee4 Little Girls, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, If God Is Willing and da Creek Don’t Rise, 25th Hour, Malcolm X, Inside Man, and Do the Right Thing

Peter Weir – whole corpus, but especially Fearless, Witness, and The Mosquito Coast

Martin Scorsese – whole corpus, but especially Mean StreetsThe Last Temptation of ChristKundunGoodfellas, and The Departed

Warren Beatty Reds and Bulworth

Robert DuvallThe Apostle

Jonathan DemmeCousin Bobby, The Agronomist, The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia, Jimmy Carter: Man from Plains, and Swimming to Cambodia

Woody AllenCrimes and Misdemeanors, Hannah and Her Sisters, Broadway Danny Rose, Annie Hall, Manhattan, Sweet and Lowdown, Deconstructing Harry, Husbands and Wives, Bullets Over Broadway, Sleeper, Zelig, and The Purple Rose of Cairo

Richard Attenborough Gandhi and Cry Freedom

Michael Moore – whole corpus, but especially Roger & Me and Bowling for Columbine

Christopher Nolan – whole corpus, but especially Memento and The Dark Knight

Tim Robbins – whole corpus, but especially Dead Man Walking

Sean Penn – whole corpus, but especially The Indian Runner and The Pledge

George ClooneyConfessions of a Dangerous Mind and Good Night, and Good Luck.

Mira NairMonsoon Wedding

Arthur PennBonnie and Clyde and Little Big Man

David AnspaughHoosiers

Noah BaumbachKicking and Screaming, Mr. Jealousy, and The Squid and the Whale

Wes AndersonRushmore and The Darjeeling Limited

Michael MannThe Insider, Ali, and Heat

Cindy MeehlBuck

Orson WellesCitizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, Touch of Evil, Chimes at Midnight, and F for Fake

Jean RenoirGrand Illusion and The Rules of the Game

Akira Kurosawa – whole corpus, but especially IkiruRan, Seven Samurai, Red Beard, Rashomon, High and Low, Yojimbo, Dersu Uzala, and Dreams

Alfred Hitchcock – whole corpus, but especially Vertigo, North by Northwest, Rear Window, Psycho, and Shadow of a Doubt

John FordThe Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and The Quiet Man

Fred ZinnemannHigh Noon

Ross McElweeSherman’s March

Frank CapraIt’s a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

John HustonThe Man Who Would Be King, The African Queen, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Maltese Falcon, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, and Prizzi’s Honor

George A. RomeroNight of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Martin

Joel and Ethan CoenRaising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, A Serious Man, The Man Who Wasn’t There, True Grit, and O Brother, Where Art Thou?

David O. RussellThree Kings and I (Heart) Huckabees

Alexander Payne – whole corpus, but especially Election, About Schmidt, and Sideways

Ingmar BergmanWild Strawberries, The Seventh Seal, and Persona

Billy WilderSunset Blvd., Double Indemnity, and Some Like It Hot

Robert AltmanNashville, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, M*A*S*H, and Short Cuts

Stanley Kubrick – whole corpus, but especially Paths of Glory and Dr. Strangelove: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Francis Ford CoppolaThe Godfather, The Godfather: Part II, The Conversation, and Apocalypse Now

Carol ReedThe Third Man

Joseph von SternbergThe Last Command

Clint EastwoodA Perfect World and Unforgiven

Jim SheridanIn the Name of the Father

Werner HerzogGrizzly Man

Lindsay AndersonO Lucky Man!

Paul Thomas AndersonMagnolia

Jean-Luc GodardBreathless

Francois TruffautThe 400 Blows, Jules and Jim, Fahrenheit 451, and Day for Night

Sidney LumetNetwork, 12 Angry Men, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, The Verdict, and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead

Davis GuggenheimAn Inconvenient Truth

Steven SoderberghKing of the Hill, Out of Sight, Erin Brockovich, Che, Traffic, and The Informant!

Ridley ScottBlade Runner

Robert MulliganTo Kill a Mockingbird

Steve BuscemiTrees Lounge

Glenn Gordon Caron Clean and Sober

Bob RafelsonFive Easy Pieces

Neil JordanThe Crying Game

Robert Zemeckis Contact and Cast Away

Jim JarmuschDead Man

Roman PolanskiChinatown and Repulsion

Edward ZwickGlory



Johnny Cash – whole corpus, but especially The American Recordings, At Folsom Prison, At San Quentin, At San Quentin, My Mother’s Hymn Book, “What is Truth,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Ring of Fire,” “Get Rhythm,” “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” “What Do I Care,” and “The Man in Black”

Bruce Springsteen – whole corpus, but especially The Rising, Born to Run, The Ghost of Tom Joad, “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” “Man’s Job,” “American Skin (41 Shots),” “Beautiful Disguise,” “Mary’s Place,” We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, Lucky Town, “Lonesome Day,” “Girls in Their Summer Clothes,” and “The Rising”

Leonard Cohen – whole corpus, but especially The Future, Songs of Leonard Cohen, and “Democracy”

Woody Guthrie – whole corpus, but especially Dustbowl Ballads and “This Land Is Your Land”

Emmylou Harris – whole corpus, but especially Wrecking Ball, Red Dirt Girl, and “Deeper Well”

Elliott Smith – whole corpus, but especially Roman Candle, Either/Or, “Alameda,” “Last Call,” “Rose Parade,” “Waltz #2,” “Angeles,” “Pitseleh,” and “Son of Sam”

Bob Dylan – whole corpus, but especially Highway 61 Revisited, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, Bringing It All Back Home, Blonde on Blonde, Time Out of Mind, Blood on the Tracks, Oh Mercy, Love and Theft, and The Bootleg Series

Philip Glass – whole corpus, but especially Satyagraha, Solo Piano, and the soundtrack for Martin Scorsese’s Kundun

Aretha Franklin – whole corpus, but especially Amazing Grace and “I Never Loved a Man”

Marvin Gaye – whole corpus, but especially What’s Going On?

The Beatles – whole corpus, but especially “All You Need Is Love”

John Lennon – whole corpus, but especially Imagine, Double Fantasy, “Working Class Hero,” “Jealous Guy,” “Mind Games,” “Give Peace a Chance,” “Happy Xmas (War is Over),” “Nobody Told Me,” “Watching the Wheels,” “Power to the People,” “Instant Karma,” “Gimme Some Truth,” and “Imagine”

George Harrison – whole corpus, but especially All Things Must Pass, Living in the Material World, Cloud Nine, Brainwashed, “Fish on the Sand,” “Any Road,” “This is Love,” “What is Life,” and “Isn’t It a Pity?”

Patti Smith – whole corpus, but especially Gung Ho, Horses, and Twelve

U2 – whole corpus, but especially The Unforgettable Fire and “Beautiful Day”

Roy Orbison – whole corpus

Patsy Cline – whole corpus, but especially “Crazy”

Public Enemy It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Fear of a Black Planet, “Fight the Power,” and “He Got Game”

Sam CookeGreatest Hits

Billie HolidayGreatest Hits

Tom PettyGreatest Hits, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers: The Live Anthology, and “Have Love Will Travel”

The Travelling Wilburys – whole corpus

The Flatlanders – whole corpus

Jimmie Dale Gilmore – whole corpus

Stevie Wonder – Talking Book, Songs in the Key of Life, “Pastime Paradise,” and “I Wish”

Neil Young – whole corpus, but especially “Heart of Gold,” “Rockin’ in the Free World,” “Philadelphia,” and “For What It’s Worth” (with Buffalo Springfield)

Daniel Lanois – “The Maker” and Acadie

Bob Marley – whole corpus, especially “Three Little Birds,” “Redemption Song,” and “Get Up, Stand Up”

Beastie BoysCheck Your Head, Ill Communication, Hello Nasty, “Bodhisattva Vow,” “Stand Together,” “Unite,” and “Sure Shot”

Jeff BuckleyGrace

Bright Eyes – “Bowl of Oranges”

Lucinda WilliamsCar Wheels on a Gravel Road


Bhikkhu Bodhi – whole corpus of translation and original writing, but especially In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon and “A Challenge to Buddhists”

The Heart Sūtra

Vimalakīrti Nirdeśa Sūtra

Śāntideva Bodhicaryavatara

NāgārjunaMūlamadhyamaka-kārikā and Suhṛllekha


Geshe Rabten – Mind and Emotions

Mipham Rinpoche Gateway to Knowledge

Gyalsé Tokmé ZangpoThirty-Seven Practices of the Bodhisattvas

Mahāyānottaratantra Śāstra

His Holiness the Dalai Lama – whole corpus, but especially “Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech” and A Flash of Lightning in the Dark of Night

Sulak SivaraksaLoyalty Demands Dissent, Seeds of Peace: A Buddhist Vision for Renewing Society, The Wisdom of Sustainability: Buddhist Economics for the 21st Century, and Conflict, Culture, Change: Engaged Buddhism in a Globalizing World

Maha GhosanandaStep by Step: Meditations on Wisdom and Compassion

Aung San Suu KyiFreedom from Free, Letters from Burma, and The Voice of Hope (in conversation with Alan Clements)

Archbishop Desmond Tutu – whole corpus, but especially No Future Without Forgiveness, God Is Not a Christian: And Other Provocations, An African Prayer Book, The Rainbow People of God, and God Has a Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time

Mohandas K. Gandhi – whole corpus, but especially Non-Violent Resistance and The Story of My Experiments with Truth

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – whole corpus, but especially Why We Can’t Wait, Strength to Love, and Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?

Ralph Waldo Emerson – whole corpus, but especially “Divinity School Address”

Henry David Thoreau – whole corpus, but especially Walden and “Civil Disobedience”

Walt Whitman – whole corpus, but especially “Song of Myself”

Leo TolstoyA Confession, The Kingdom of God is Within You, War and Peace, and How Much Land Does a Man Need?

Mark Twain – whole corpus

John SteinbeckThe Grapes of Wrath

Harriet Beecher Stowe Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Harper LeeTo Kill a Mockingbird

W. Somerset MaughamThe Razor’s Edge

N. Scott MomadayHouse Made of Dawn

Sherman AlexieThe Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven

Tim O’BrienThe Things They Carried

Barbara KingsolverThe Bean Trees

Upton SinclairThe Jungle

Studs Terkel – whole corpus, but especially Working and Will the Circle Be Unbroken?

Jerry ManderFour Arguments for the Elimination of Television

Louis FischerGandhi: His Life and His Message for the World

Eknath EaswaranGandhi: The Man

David J. GarrowBearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference

Tony HendraFather Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul

Barbara EhrenreichNickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America

Breece D’J PancakeThe Stories of Breece D’J Pancake

Alice WalkerThe Color Purple

Pablo NerudaCollected Poems

Charles Bukowski – whole corpus

E.L. Doctorow Ragtime, The Book of Daniel, and City of God

Art SpiegelmanMaus

Bill WattersonCalvin & Hobbes series

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry – The Little Prince

Fred Rogers – whole corpus

John IrvingA Prayer for Owen Meaney and A Son of the Circus

Toni MorrisonThe Bluest Eye

Herman MelvilleMoby Dick

Charles DickensA Tale of Two Cities, A Christmas Carol, and Oliver Twist

J.D. SalingerThe Catcher in the Rye and Franny and Zooey

Emily BrontëWuthering Heights

Mary Wollstonecraft ShelleyA Vindication of the Rights of Woman and Frankenstein

Audre LordeZami: A New Spelling of My Name

Ernest J. GainesA Lesson Before Dying

AnonymousPrimary Colors

Herman HesseSiddhartha and Narcissus and Goldmund

Jostein Gaarder – Sophie’s World

Booker T. WashingtonUp from Slavery

Hunter S. ThompsonHell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, The Great Shark Hunt: Strange Tales from a Strange Time, and The Proud Highway: The Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman 1955–1967

T.S. EliotThe Wasteland

William Shakespeare – whole corpus

Tennessee Williams – whole corpus

Eugene O’NeillThe Iceman Cometh, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and Ah, Wilderness!

Tony KushnerAngels in America

Moisés Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater ProjectThe Laramie Project

Eve EnslerThe Vagina Monologues

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche – whole corpus, but especially Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior

Pema Chödrön – whole corpus

Judith Simmer-BrownDakini’s Warm Breath and “The Crisis of Consumerism”

Joshua Eaton – “It’s Time to Open Our Doors”

Kalu RinpocheThe Dharma: That Illuminates All Beings Impartially Like the Light of the Sun and the Moon

Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche – Present Fresh Wakefulness: A Meditation Manual on Nonconceptual Wisdom

Vice President Al GoreAn Inconvenient Truth and The Assault on Reason

Jonathan HarrA Civil Action

Randy ShiltsAnd the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic

Sister Helen PrejeanDead Man Walking

Rachel Carson Silent Spring

Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunnHalf the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide

Howard ZinnA People’s History of the United States: 1492 to Present

Nelson MandelaLong Walk to Freedom

Anne FrankThe Diary of a Young Girl

Elie WieselNight

Frederick DouglassMy Bondage and My Freedom

Malcom XThe Autobiography of Malcolm X

C.S. LewisA Grief Observed, The Screwtape Letters, and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

Paul Rogat LoebThe Soul of the Citizen and The Impossible Will Take a Little While (with others)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer The Cost of Discipleship, Ethics, and Letters and Papers from Prison

Cornel West – whole corpus, but especially Race Matters, Hope on a Tightrope: Words and Wisdom, and The Rich and the Rest of Us (with Tavis Smiley)

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!