Stephen Jay Gould
A science writer who never "writes down" to his audience, Gould makes the reader appreciate the complexity, quirkiness, and connectedness of both the natural world and human history. Gould sometimes requires considerable attention to follow, but he's worth it. [The Flamingo's Smile; Bully for Brontosaurus; Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle]
A neurologist who writes for a lay audience, Sacks has a delighted reverence for the human being as a whole, both the intricacy of our physical structure and the tightrope-dance we perform every day of our lives. His patients inhabit stranger worlds than most science fiction and fantasy writers ever dreamed of.[The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Seeing Voices, Awakenings]
His Ravens in Winter is the best depiction I've seen of how biological research actually works. His intense curiosity is contagious and his tolerance for frustration (not to mention cold) is amazing.
He may well be the greatest living American prose stylist, and he's certainly the writer I'd most like to imitate. He covers an astounding range of topics and appears to enjoy every minute of it. [Giving Good Weight, Waiting for a Ship]
If I had to explain to someone what the South is, what being a Southerner means, I'd give them Bailey White to read. The accuracy of her vision and the sharpness of her wit are nothing short of terrifying, and by God the woman can tell a story. If you're "not from around here" you may find it hard to believe how little of this stuff she's making up. For the full experience, get the audiotapes read by the author. [Mama Makes Up Her Mind, Sleeping at the Starlite Motel (essays); Quite a Year for Plums (novel)]
What can I say? Tolkien is the granddaddy of all fantasy writers, at least in the English-speaking world. Middle-Earth never gets old, and The Lord of the Rings will never be surpassed. If you haven't read his essay "On Fairy-Stories," you should.
Ursula K. LeGuin
Her characters are real, achingly human, and unforgettable. Her prose is deceptively simple. I find I have to read each book at least twice and then think about it for a long, long time. [The Dispossessed, The Earthsea Trilogy, Tehanu] Also look for her book of essays on fantasy writing, The Language of the Night.
I wish I understood his knack for making the least likely characters sympathetic. His Vlad Taltos series is stylish, gritty and addictive; the Khaavren books are what I wanted The Three Musketeers to be; and Agyar gets my vote for "best vampire story of all time". Like many of my favorite authors, he is obsessed with food. [Jhereg, The Phoenix Guard, Cowboy Feng's Space Bar and Grille]
His series of mysteries featuring Navajo detectives Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn gets better and better. Hillerman's characters, even the villains, are fully realized and believable. His characters are notably intelligent; he doesn't have to surround them with idiots to make them look smart. [Skinwalkers, Coyote Waits]
I think The Nine Tailors is the greatest mystery ever written. I'm also partial to the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries that follow his romance with writer Harriet Vane [Strong Poison, Have His Carcase, Gaudy Night, and Busman's Honeymoon]. Technically Harriet is a Mary Sue, which just goes to show you that a good enough writer can pull off pretty much anything. Sayers also wrote plays and essays, by the way, and though much harder to find than her mysteries they're worth digging for. Her thoughts on work, in particular, were radical for her time and would be even more radical now, if anyone were paying attention.
I often forget that I'm supposed to be figuring out whodunnit when reading Marsh. And I was overcome with envy for the cast of the Scots Play in Light Thickens. (Marsh was a playwright and acted in summer stock, so many of her mysteries deal with the theater.)
My God, how long can he keep writing these things? There are 25 Discworld books so far, and Pratchett still has an apparently endless supply of funny lines, hysterical situations, and profound truths. Whatever he's smoking, I want some. Don't miss Good Omens, which he co-wrote with Neil Gaiman; it's the funniest book ever written about the apocalypse. No, really.
Greenwillow by B.J. Chute is, alas, out of print. When I'm hurting I read this book and it makes me feel better. It's a lovingly detailed portrait of a small town, rather uneventful; gentle but not boring. Have a box of Kleenex ready at the end.
If You Would be Happy by Ruth Stout is what a self-help book should be: tart, down-to-earth, realistic and sound advice from a woman who lived well and wasn't shy about sharing ideas that worked. So of course it's out of print. Her gardening book, How to Have a Green Thumb Without an Aching Back, is a classic; currently out of print, it's been resurrected before and probably will be again.
A Dram of Poison by Charlotte Armstrong. This one's still in print, hard to find but worth the effort. This book would make a magnificent movie. Random characters get caught up in the search for the deadly item in the title.
Silverlock by John Myers Myers. Who are the idiots who let THIS one fall off the print list? A book about redemption and self-discovery, with cameos by the entire cast list of western literature. Figuring out who all the characters are is great fun, but you can also just enjoy watching the protagonist grow from a shallow jerk into someone worth caring about.
Dance of the Tiger: A Novel of the Ice Age (original title: Den Svarta Tigern) by Bjorn Kurten. The author was a paleontologist, and it shows: not in his writing style, which is worthy of any novelist, but in the plausibility of his reconstruction. Gripping plot, memorable characters, good science, and the best explanation I've seen yet of what happened to the Neanderthals.
Although this is a science and social science magazine for kids ages 9-14, my kids have to wait till I'm finished with it. Some of the best science writers in the country contribute, and the publishers are Carus Press (publishers of Cricket) and Smithsonian. The frequent wry humor enhances the content rather than undercutting it.
The writing and photos are top-notch, the subject matter is varied and interesting, and unlike some other magazines in a similar vein, the stories are neither condescending nor identical in style.
A magnificent weekly science magazine for the non-scientist. Lacks the hype and dumbing-down so often found in popular coverage of science. Their website is a great resource as well.
Like the museum that sponsors it, the magazine is an endless series of unexpected delights.
Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson. The spark that lit environmentalism.
The Mismeasure of Man, by Stephen Jay Gould. The history and misuse of intelligence testing.