Fearless, inventive, persistent, beautiful, or just plain badass—here are some of the living authors who shake us awake, challenge our ideas of who we are, embolden our actions, and, above all, inspire us to live life more fully and creatively. Add your favorites to the list in the comments section below.
The best-selling Nigerian novelist sets universal tales of personal and moral struggle in the context of the tragic drama of colonization.
An uprooted Alexandrian Jew, Aciman is a writer whose careful reflections, couched in dense and unapologetic prose, unfurl like lifelines flung out to all the world's wanderers.
His is the perfect story line: Jesuit priest from Nigeria becomes a best-selling, Oprah-chosen author. "I was inspired to write by the people who sit around my village church to share palm wine after Sunday Mass, by the Bible, and by the humor and endurance of the poor," he writes on his Web site.
There was too much chatter about the quality of the poem. What matters is that she was up there reading it—a poem!—on the biggest and most inspiring stage in recent history.
As William Giraldi wrote, he is "a man for whom language is dangerous, a man who measures every word because every word is sacred."
One of the best and most enduring poets that this country is lucky enough to have. Period.
The graphic memoirist shows us that perhaps the truest way to make sense of memory is by investigating the pictures of our past (both physical and mental).
He's like Santa Claus, only thinner. You can count on a damn good book of fiction under the tree every year.
She was bending genres like silly straws long before it was fashionable or commercially successful to do so. Plus, she's probably the smartest author we know.
His memoir, The Aquariums of Pyongyang, was the first account of North Korea's gulag system by someone who had survived it.
She took one of the staples of fantasy writing, the magician, and turned it into a high literary epic, removing Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell from the confines of genre entirely.
He's made accessible a dirty word by celebrating the poetic pleasures and small comforts of ordinary life in a way that encourages us to celebrate them too.
Check for the pulse of anyone who wasn't deeply moved by The Year of Magical Thinking. Didion's simple, unsentimental prose is pure inspirational power.
It's been more than twenty years since she introduced us to Arturo the Aquaboy, Ephy and Elly the twins, and Oly the albino hunchback, but we'll gladly wait another twenty for anything approaching the genius of Geek Love.
Eady and Toi Derricotte
Two poets, two words: Cave Canem. The fact that they have eleven poetry collections between them is icing on the cake.
From A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius to McSweeney's to 826 National to Where the Wild Things Are. He might just be the hardest-working writer in publishing.
The last Bohemian. A cofounder of City Lights Bookstore. Publisher of Allen Ginsberg's Howl—and defendant in the obscenity trial that ensued. Author of A Coney Island of the Mind. His audience treats him like a rock star. Because he is one.
The image of the eighty-one-year-old on the cover of Unpacking the Boxes: A Memoir of a Life in Poetry pretty much says it all.
It takes courage to write The Kiss. Plain and simple.
Reminds us that the language we use when ordering a sandwich is also the language we use to make art. Her environmental concerns prove writers can offer more than just aesthetic pleasure.
A former member of the Vietnamese Communist Party, Duong, especially in No Man's Land, reassures us that beauty tends to be oblivious to the threats of thugs.
He conveys and memorializes the struggles of the American working class in a way that is authentic, heartfelt, and all too rare in contemporary poetry.
Her grassroots efforts to build community through a micropublishing model prove that you don't need a lot of money to make an impact.
Gabriel García Márquez
He makes the most magical of circumstances believable. And this nonsense that he's finished with writing? Don't believe it.
He made it okay for literary snobs to read bloody westerns and postapocalyptic thrillers.
The feminist poet and founder of Día de los Niños/Día de los Libros is also an energetic advocate in the bilingual community.
A portrait of strength and beauty, the 1993 Nobel laureate writes utterly compelling novels about the whole arc of American experience.
He consistently demonstrates how far the narrative form can bend and proves that a story with surrealist tendencies can be both moving and compelling.
Let's never forget that our first African American president is also a best-selling author.
In The Things They Carried, he gave us the ultimate meditation on war, memory, imagination, and the redemptive power of storytelling.
Stares down multiple sclerosis and laughs in its face. Plus, anyone who has the guts to title a book of poems Inseminating the Elephant has our vote.
Reminiscent of another inspirational figure, Roberto Bolaño, Plascencia alters our experience of the text and challenges our associations of symbol and meaning by incorporating drawings, figures, and text objects into his writing.
The Southern poet, novelist, and memoirist has done some of his best work after becoming a paraplegic following surgery in the 1980s to remove a spinal cord tumor.
He's like Proust. We could live our whole lives and never read Gravity's Rainbow...and still be inspired by it.
He may have been down, but he's never been out. The author of Driftless still has a glimmer in his eye when he talks about motorcycles.
She proves that great art takes time. With the publication of Gilead, we were reminded that twenty-four years isn't too long to wait for a novel.
Possession of The Satanic Verses will still get you arrested in much of the Muslim world. It's probably worth it.
The quietness and measured quality of her poetry also informs her lifestyle: As both a runner and cyclist, she establishes a balance between the heady work of writing and the need of the body to do its own work.
Benjamin Alire Sáenz
His novels contain heartbreakingly honest and unsentimental portraits of people struggling with such traumas as alcoholism and sexual molestation.
J. D. Salinger
He found a way to write characters, dialogue, and scenes that seem effortless. And he's managed to stay hidden for decades—how is that even possible in the twenty-first century?
Sure he's filthy rich, but the man knows how to spend his money. He owns four Ducati motorcycles and he writes poems about them (probably while wearing a suit).
Despite virus-induced brain damage, he writes with surprising tenderness and candor about recreating a life for himself and, in the process, makes us think about our own.
The first black writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, he's written in nearly ever genre while relentlessly pursuing freedom in his homeland of Nigeria.
Six years ago, when she was a mere eighty-nine years old, the poet was quoted in our pages as saying, "You have to allow yourself to take joy. Otherwise, you're no good to anyone."
The most famous living poet in Poland proves that quality is more important than quantity. The eighty-six-year-old Nobel laureate has published no more than 250 poems.
The New Journalism.
"I was the accuser, God the accused. My eyes were open and I was alone—terribly alone in a world without God and without man." —from the Nobel Peace Prize winner's memoir Night.
She's a true original, who manages to be odd, beautiful, tough as nails, and wonderfully inventive all in the same poetic line.
Authors who would have made the list had we compiled it a little over a year ago: Jim Carroll, Frank McCourt, Reginald Shepherd, John Updike, David Foster Wallace.
We’ve shared our list. Now we want to hear from you: Which authors inspire you most?
Post a comment and let us know.