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    Introduction by Neil Baldwin
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  • Edited by Diane Osen
    Introduction by Neil Baldwin
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Interviews with National Book Award Winners and Finalists

Edited by Diane OsenAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Diane Osen
Introduction by Neil BaldwinAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Neil Baldwin


List Price: $2.99


On Sale: June 15, 2011
Pages: 208 | ISBN: 978-0-307-79365-2
Published by : Modern Library Random House Group
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Every reader can name at least one book that changed his or her life—and many more beloved titles will surely come to mind as well. In The Book That Changed My Life, fifteen of America’s most influential authors discuss their own special literary choices. These unique interviews with National Book Award winners and finalists offer new insights into the many ways in which the experience of reading shapes the act of writing. Robert Stone on Joseph Conrad’s Victory, Cynthia Ozick on Henry James’s Washington Square, Charles Johnson on Jack London’s The Sea-Wolf—each approaches the question of literary influence, while offering rich and wonderful revelations about his or her own writing career. James Carroll, Don DeLillo, E. L. Doctorow, Diane Johnson, Philip Levine, David Levering Lewis, Barry Lopez, David McCullough, Alice McDermott, Grace Paley, Linda Pastan, and Katherine Paterson are the other distinguished contributors to this collection of informed, insightful interviews.


Chapter 1

James Carroll

James Carroll, Winner of the 1996 National Book Award for his memoir An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War That Came Between Us, was born in Chicago in 1943 and grew up outside Washington, D.C., where his father worked as an FBI agent. After joining the military, his father became a lieutenant general in the air force and director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Carroll attended Georgetown University before entering St. Paul's College, the Paulist Fathers' seminary in Washington, D.C. After his ordination to the priesthood in 1969, he served as the Catholic Chaplain at Boston University for five years before leaving the priesthood and pursuing a career as a writer. In the years since, he has published nine novels, including Mortal Friends, Prince of Peace, and The City Below, and written a weekly op-ed column for The Boston Globe. In his most recent book, the critically acclaimed Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews, he chronicles the two-thousand-year-old battle of the Church against Judaism, while confronting the crisis of faith this tragedy has provoked in his own life.

A Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a member of its Committee for International Security Studies, Carroll is a former chair and current member of the council of PEN/New England, as well as a Trustee of the Boston Public Library and a member of the Advisory Board of the International Center for Ethics, Justice, and Public Life at Brandeis University. He has held fellowships at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and at Harvard Divinity School. He remains an Associate of Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, where he is at work on a history of the Pentagon. His tenth novel will be published in 2003. He lives in Boston with his wife, the novelist Alexandra Marshall, and their two grown children.

Hailed by the judges of the 1996 National Book Awards as a "flawlessly executed" memoir, An American Requiem tells the story of James Carroll's transformation from a passive, politically conservative seminarian into an outspoken critic of the war in Vietnam and proponent of civil rights-a transformation that divides him from his father even as it brings him closer to God. An unforgettable account of a son's struggle to claim his own political and religious identity, An American Requiem reveals that, in the author's words, the "very act of storytelling, of arranging memory and invention according to the structure of narrative, is by definition holy. . . . Telling our stories is what saves us; the story is enough."

Diane Osen: You write in An American Requiem that as a young seminarian you started composing poems and stories to help salve your soul. Why do you suppose you turned to writing, instead of something else, to find that relief and release?

James Carroll: It was the accident, I suppose, of being in a setting in which reading and writing were at the heart of what I was doing, as opposed, for example, to being in the world of business, or the military, or some other career. I wasn't raised to be a book person, and to find myself in a world where I was expected to read seriously and write seriously in an academic setting, well, it was a first-time experience for me. Before entering the seminary, I had not encountered the life-changing potential of reading as a source of meaning, as a way of ordering one's inner life, and being rooted in the world.

DO: What are some of the books that had, for you, that kind of life-changing potential?

JC: I was very moved by The Confessions of Saint Augustine, which I was required to read. To my surprise, I identified with this great figure, as I recognized the details of his ordinary life in my own. The great self-accusation that Augustine brings to bear isn't of a crime; it isn't even what people often think it is, the sin of sexual license as a young man. It is the relatively mundane offense of taking an apple from somebody's orchard. This challenge to his conscience is the beginning of a journey from that mundane experience to a very profound intuition about the place of human beings in the world.

To read Plato and Aristotle, to track the ways in which they affected the thinkers of the West-largely Christian thinkers-was a really life-changing experience for me. I was changed again by reading the Existentialists, and Albert Camus was especially important to me. The tragic quality of his life was irresistible to a young man like me, but there were patterns even in his experience that I had learned how to look for.

For example, The Confessions is structured in such a way that the climax comes when Augustine's mother dies, and he is numb, paralyzed, frozen. He's unable to weep for her, and he recognizes his own great flaw: his inability to accept his mother's love. He looks back on his whole life and sees that it's been one long flight from her. That epiphany breaks open the emotional paralysis, and he finally weeps for her. And in allowing his love for his mother to overwhelm him, and at last to feel her love, he recognizes that all along this has been God's love. Augustine goes on to take that experience of human love and develop the first great theology of the Trinity. The gospel of John had said that God is love, but Augustine describes exactly what that could mean.

I went from The Confessions to Camus's novel L'Etranger, where the main character is accused of murder, but what he understands to be his real crime is that his mother has just died and he was unable to weep at her funeral. Whether Camus was consciously using this image he shares with a fellow North African from 1,700 years before or not, my discovery of this common, simple intuition about the importance of love-well, for a young man who was full of feelings but not sure what to make of them, it was a liberation. To feel licensed to have these powerful feelings of openness to life, and to be told, first by Augustine, that it's sacred, and then, by Camus, that it goes to the heart of secular human life, was a tremendous liberation-especially since I'd grown up in a Puritan culture where the basic message is that such feelings are not to be trusted.

It seems odd, but to be in a room, alone, with the door closed, reading books, encountering books, and then to understand that you can leave the room and be the person that you've been wanting to be all along-it was a great thing. And to go from something like that into a theological exploration of who God is-it was an unbelievably exhilarating time, and every book you read in such a context would send you into two more books.

DO: You've been writing novels for many years now. What inspired you at this point in your life to write a memoir?

JC: Two things: the aging and deaths of my parents, and the coming to maturity of my children. It seemed very important to me that my children should come into adulthood with a fuller sense of who their grandparents were, and in particular, of what my father's struggle was. My children knew my father as a senile old man. That was such a source of grief to me-to see my son Patrick's eyes cloud with fear at my father's arrival.

I later understood that there were larger movements, as well. It's no coincidence that while I was at work on that book, the United States of America was at the final stage of lifting the embargo on Vietnam. It took us twenty years to accomplish that, and my work was simply one person's version of that broad, national movement. Ending the war, and my own experience of it, was also part of the motive. What I was trying to do was write this very particular story of the people of my generation, who came of age with, first, the paranoia about communism, the assumptions of the Cold War, and the dread of nuclear conflict; and then, the civil rights movement, the coming of John F. Kennedy, the coming of Martin Luther King, and the end of it all, both in the assassinations and in the war.

DO: I imagine that the act of writing An American Requiem brought you to a lot of other new insights, as well. What was your most surprising discovery?

JC: I was surprised by, and quite relieved by, the order in my life. To discover, for example, that my father's public life begins in the act of tracking down a draft dodger who was a notorious criminal in the thirties in Chicago, and to go from that to the end of my father's public life, when he sticks his neck out for his draft dodger son, and recognized a classic reversal in that. Such reversal is the structure of narrative. The beautiful order of it, the way it says everything, really, about the distance my father had come in this life-to discover that order was very important to me, and very moving.

And that's just one of many, many epiphanies that I came upon in reflecting seriously on this family life story. To see the pattern-tragic, but nevertheless beautiful-that the Catholic peace movement should have played an important part in laying bare, and opposing, the crime of the Vietnam War: That was a perfect counterpoint to the way in which Cardinal Spellman and the Catholics in Saigon had laid the groundwork for the war. These patterns, by and large patterns of reversal, are built in, Aristotle says, to the human narrative impulse. To discover these patterns in my own and my family story was to draw meaning out of meaninglessness, and it was quite exhilarating.

DO: I want to ask you about a couple of passages toward the end of American Requiem. You write, "Telling our stories is what saves us. The story is enough." And later, "The very act of storytelling, of arranging memory and invention according to the structure of narrative is, by definition, holy." Can you talk a little bit more about your sense of storytelling as a holy act?

JC: It's what I was saying to you before about discovering the order in what appeared to be, while going through it, a disordered and meaningless set of experiences. As a religious person, I see that order as a symbol of the order that the Creator of the Universe has planted in our lives. It's the essence of my faith. And it's why I'm very at home in the Biblical tradition that talks about the Word of God as the central manifestation of the way in which God is in the world. In that way the word "holy" is appropriate for me: This is what I take to be the essence of biblical faith. It's what it means to be a part of what we call "the people of the book."

In other words, my notion of narrative informs my faith, and my notion of faith informs my idea of what writing is for.

DO: Having said that, what do you think of Allen Tate's observation, which you recount in your memoir, that one can have the vocation of a priest or the vocation of a writer, but not both?

JC: There are some people who've made a good life of the priesthood while being seriously committed writers. Daniel Berrigan is the most important example that comes to mind, and, obviously, Gerard Manley Hopkins.

But it's no accident that Daniel Berrigan has to live in the Church as a kind of rebel. George Orwell said once, facetiously and displaying his bias, that "few Catholics have been any good as novel writers, and those that were, were bad Catholics." It's a bit of a joke, of course. But there's some kind of truth to it. I left the priesthood because I didn't want to spend the rest of my life in rebellion against my boss. A writer's final authority has, finally, to be his or her own conscience and imagination. You can't worry about what other people are going to make of what you write. And you can't be trying to get permission from somebody.

DO: In reading two other works that have changed your life-Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried and James Joyce's "The Dead"-I was struck by the presence of ghosts, who play an important role in your book, as well. O'Brien's narrator says, "We kept the dead alive with stories." Is that, for you, another function of narrative?

JC: I'd say Tim O'Brien puts it quite beautifully. It's not at all an accident to me that the followers of Jesus, who were in grief when He died and went away, were able to claim a new life, to feel united as a community, when they gathered to tell the story about what they had experienced of Him. It's the story that brings Jesus back. This is a religion that is built on the impulse to tell a story.

What I love about O'Brien is the way in which he's constantly pushing against the boundaries, in a way that I don't, between the science of fact and the truth of the imagination. There's an almost sinister quality to it, but nevertheless a playfulness to the author's work in The Things They Carried, where he's teasing the reader constantly. Is this real? No. Is this real? This is real. And at the end we say, Well, did it really happen?

And by then, of course, if O'Brien has succeeded, we're not asking that anymore. We're asking another question: What is the meaning of this story that we've just experienced? A person of faith comes to the end of a reading of the New Testament in a similar way. When you're really ready to believe in the Good News you stop asking, Was that tomb really empty? You get beyond that question, to the question of, What is the Resurrection in my life?

Even when the story is painful, the telling of it opens us to a level of experience, a transcendent level-which is why, for me, James Joyce's "The Dead" is so powerful. The trivial and banal socializing of the Dublin middle class is transformed into something else when Gretta tells her husband, Gabriel, the story of her first love. And even though, at one level, that's a terrible thing for Gabriel to hear-he realizes Gretta loves the memory of this man in a way that she will never love him-that story opens Gabriel to a new realm, where he understands something about the mystery of human experience.
Author Q&A

Author Q&A

What sparked the idea for the publication of The Book that Changed My Life?

Like everyone who loves to read, I’ve always been interested in the writing lives of authors–and as a consultant for the National Book Foundation, which sponsors the National Book Awards, I’ve had the chance to develop a number of outreach programs meant to explore the many ways in which the experience of reading can inform–and even transform–the art of writing. Among these initiatives were reading circles that brought together National Book Award authors and readers to explore the role literature can play in the daily lives of people of all ages and backgrounds. Ultimately, thousands of readers in scores of cities and towns across the country participated in these reading circles, which led to the publication of the first book I worked on with the Foundation and Random House, The Writing Life. This new collection of interviews is in many ways a sequel to that anthology, with an emphasis this time on the specific books that shaped the writing lives of the participating authors.

How were the fifteen authors selected out of so many National Book Award winners and finalists?

Needless to say, selecting only 15 from the hundreds of distinguished authors who have been recognized by the National Book Awards was a daunting task. To ease the difficulty somewhat, we decided to focus on authors who were multiple finalists or winners; who have distinctly different voices; and who together would represent all four National Book Award categories: fiction, non-fiction, poetry and young people’s literature.

How did you go about conducting the interviews with each author?

Very carefully! The authors featured in this book are some of America’s most eminent novelists, historians, poets and essayists, so I tried my hardest to prepare as thoroughly and as thoughtfully as I could for every interview. I spoke to the authors by phone, frantically taking notes by hand since I was always afraid that some technological disaster would compromise the audio tapes I recorded simultaneously. Thankfully, that never happened.

What kind of research was necessary to prepare for each interview? How long did the entire process take?

From beginning to end the process took about three years, I would say, because there was a lot of research involved. Three program officers at the National Book Foundation–Meredith Andrews, Maryann Jacob and Sherrie Young–helped enormously, by copying for me every news story, feature, scholarly article, book review, or essay related to the authors that they could find. The rest–synthesizing all that material, finding other sources, reading the authors’ books as well as their favorite titles, devising the interview questions, and editing the interviews–was up to me. But to be honest, the authors made it easy–they were not only astonishingly articulate and insightful, but their kindness and patience invariably dissolved the anxiety I felt at the beginning of every conversation.

Were any of the authors’ favorite titles particularly surprising?

I wouldn’t say surprising, as much as personally gratifying: I was thrilled to discover that people I so admire and respect share some of my own literary enthusiasms. And it was fascinating to discern some of the interests the authors have in common. For example, while Charles Johnson, Diane Johnson, Barry Lopez, David McCullough and Robert Stone are surely perceived as writers with very different sensibilities, all have either written or loved books set on boats or ships. Others, like Cynthia Ozick, Alice McDermott, E. L. Doctorow and Grace Paley, share in common wonderful childhood memories of visiting their local public libraries; Philip Levine, Don DeLillo, Linda Pastan and David Levering Lewis remember just as clearly how their childhood books looked and felt in their hands. James Carroll, on the other hand, did not discover the life-altering possibilities of reading, or writing, until he started college. But however and whenever they embraced the writing life, all the authors have a deep belief in the power of storytelling–which is reflected clearly by their favorite books.

What are some of the books that have changed your life, and why?

As the authors I interviewed can tell you, it isn’t necessarily easy to identify the books that have changed one’s life. It’s certainly true that some of my favorite contemporary books and authors are featured in The Book That Changed My Life. I also love nineteenth-century and twentieth-century English fiction–particularly Eliot, Trollope, James, Woolf, Iris Murdoch, David Lodge–and I spent a wonderful summer reading books by John Updike, Andrea Barrett, Richard Russo and Alan Furst. But the book that has actually changed my life is this book–because in sharing their insights with me, the authors led me to a vastly deeper and more nuanced understanding of literature than I had ever been able to gain in school, or on my own.

What do you want readers to take away from this book?

I hope they will take away the same things I have–a sense of wonder in the face of genius, and the conviction that telling stories is one of the most powerful and beautiful ways in which we can define not only our humanity, but our community.



“Everyone should read this book, especially the illiterate.” —Steve Martin, author of Shopgirl
Teachers Guide

Teacher's Guide


This teacher’s guide will help you get the most out of this book in your literature, writing and journalism classes. The 15 interviews demonstrate the range of books that have affected a wide variety of writers. Students will learn about these writers and their diverse backgrounds, which often inspires them to read a book by an author. Teachers should instruct students to read one, several, or all of the interviews; this depends on what the curriculum limits and time frame allows. You should review the essays to see which match their syllabus, or to group the interviews by gender, ethnicity or genre.

Special note: The end of each interview has a list of books the author has written, and the books which influenced his/her life.

This guide has several sections to help you. The Discussion and Writing section puts books into the hands of students and asks them to make their own connection between the interview and the book they’ve read. The Essays section gives several possible writing topics, but can also be used to stir class discussion. There is also a Discussion Guide at the back of the book to consider as discussion points or essay topics; however, many a clever student will have already read these. The Beyond the Book section launches students into the world to interview others about books that have had an impact on their lives. This guide is written with the hope that students, and teachers, will feel the intimate, personal connection between themselves and the books they love.


Every reader can name at least one book that changed his or her life–and many more beloved titles will surely come to mind as well. In The Book That Changed My Life, fifteen of America’s most influential authors discuss their own special literary choices. These unique interviews with National Book Award winners and finalists offer new insights into the many ways in which the experience of reading shapes the act of writing. Robert Stone on Joseph Conrad’s Victory, Cynthia Ozick on Henry James’s Washington Square, Charles Johnson on Jack London’s The Sea-Wolf–each approaches the question of literary influence, while offering rich and wonderful revelations about his or her own writing career. James Carroll, Don DeLillo, E. L. Doctorow, Diane Johnson, Philip Levine, David Levering Lewis, Barry Lopez, David McCullough, Alice McDermott, Grace Paley, Linda Pastan, and Katherine Paterson are the other distinguished contributors to this collection of informed, insightful interviews.


*Read What Work Is by Philip Levine, a collection of poems. Levine’s book deals with themes of race, religion, education and work. It is appropriate for juniors and seniors.
*Read Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Patterson, a novel, 144p. Patterson’s book deals with themes of imagination, tragedy, suffering and loss. It is appropriate for freshmen and sophomores.
*Read Middle Passage by Charles Johnson, a novel, 244p. Johnson’s book deals with themes of race, slavery, freedom and religion. It is appropriate for juniors and seniors.
*Read Brave Companions: Portraits in History by David McCullough, a collection of historical essays. McCullough’s book deals with science, architecture, pioneers in their field, aviation, etc. It is appropriate for freshmen, sophomores and juniors.

1) How does reading the interview prepare you for reading the work of the author? What insight does it give you?
2) What connections can you make between what the author said and what the author wrote?
3) What books that the author read have you read? How does sharing the same body of knowledge (a book) help you understand someone else? How does it help you understand the writer?
4) Imagine the writer’s voice as you read the interview. What does it sound like? Do you hear the same voice in the book they wrote? How is it the same? How is it different?


1) James Carroll’s An American Requiem is about his relationship with his father and his faith. Write an essay about a book that is important in one of your parents’ lives.
2) James Carroll hopes that people who read An American Requiem will be inspired to write their own memoir (p. 10). Write an essay about your life to this point. Start with some significant moment in your life and then go backwards, identifying your parents, relatives, siblings and how you have arrived at where you are today.
3) Don DeLillo said he became a writer when he was looking down a street in Maine (p.14). Pick an object or a place and write the story of it. Include details of the object or place, but also go outside of that object or place for more information. Hint: Use details from your own life to tell the story.
4) E.L. Doctorow’s father tricked him into reading The Green Hand (p. 24). Write an essay about a situation where you were led to experience something new and unusual by a teacher, parent, family member or friend. It could be reading a book, tasting a new type of food, seeing a show, or going to a new place.
5) Charles Johnson says that many writers begin with a different discipline (p. 35). Write an essay about something you spend a lot of time doing, such as sports, ballet, karate, card collecting, video gaming, drawing, etc. The goal of the essay is to write what inspires you to spend the time on this discipline.
6) Diane Johnson wanted to be a flight attendant (p. 45). Write an essay about a career you would like to pursue. You must explain why your personality is suited to this particular career.
7) Philip Levine held various jobs in factories and automobile plants (p. 63). Write an essay about a job you have held. Describe how it shapes you and what character traits in you make you good at the job.
8) Barry Lopez noted a contrast in his youth between living in California and New York (p. 86). Write an essay contrasting two moments in your childhood,when you are interested in your environment; and the other when you are interested in ideas. Compare how your physical surroundings affect you with the way something in the realm of the mind affects you.
9) David McCullough says that in writing history, imagination combined with a full knowledge of the subject is key (p. 104). Choose a person from history and write an essay about a mundane moment in his/her life. Put as many details from that era as you can into the essay. Reading other material about the time the person lived will help your writing.
10) Alice McDermott wrote in diaries (p. 111). Find an important entry in your journal or diary. Rewrite the journal entry, but this time, make yourself a character that the writer is writing about. The other people in your journal will also become characters. Use a third person narrator to gain distance from yourself.


Conducting an interview
Interviewing is incredibly important skill that combines preparation, listening comprehension, and revision. This short section gives tips on interviewing.

1) Prepare in advance. Learn as much as you can about the subject you will interview. Chances are that if you are interviewing a classmate or an adult in your community, you may think you know them. But expect surprises. Each person is a wealth of information and the best narrator of his/her own life story.
2) Record the interview. Whether you use audio or video recording, you should always take notes on paper. It forces you to concentrate and it lets the subject know you are attentive to their responses. It also gives you the
chance to write down questions you might want to ask later, or go back to follow up on something the subject wasn’t clear about.
3) Transcribe the interview. This is the most difficult part. Set up your recording device near your computer. You’ll be using the PAUSE button frequently, so keep it close by. Type in the entire interview. Go back and read it looking for themes, groups of ideas that are similar, places where the subject repeated him/herself.
4) Edit. Cut out all the material that doesn’t directly answer the question you asked. Your job is to make the subject’s language flow smoothly. You also want to edit your questions down to the most concise wording. Imitate Diane Osen’s format for organizing the interview on the page.

As an additional resource, students will find helpful information in Joseph Brady’s The Craft of Interviewing.


1) Conduct an interview with another student in your classroom. You want them to answer the question, “Which book (or books) changed your life and why?” Follow Diane Osen’s example for interviewing. To begin, you might even use the same questions that she asks the writers. Take notes on what your classmate says, or tape record the interview. Your goal is to finish with an interview that answers the question.
2) Conduct an interview with an adult outside of your school community. Your question is, “What book changed your life, and why?” Again, follow Diane Osen’s questions to start.
3) Find other printed interview in magazines, journals or books. In The Book That Changed My Life, Diane Osen has a clear objective with each interview. What is the objective of the interview you read? Was the interviewer clear with the subject? How did the interviewer keep the person focused on the interview? Was the interviewer very personal or did he/she maintain a professional distance? Did you think the interviewer was prepared to conduct the interview?
4) Attend a book signing/reading by an author. Most major bookstores host readings by authors several times each month. Libraries and colleges do the same. Be prepared to ask the author a question during the question and answer period, or as they sign books. Make sure your question is specific to the
book, such as, “Why did you make character X do what he did in chapter 11?” Try to avoid general questions such as, “Why did you write this book?” A specific question might lead to a general response. A vague question might receive no response at all.
5) Find an interview on-line or join an author chat online. Again, prepare by reading something by the author and ask a specific question. How does the author respond? Is there a type of question that launches the author into a fuller answer? Is there a type of question that stunts the conversation?


About the Editor
Diane Osen has stated “stories are essential to our very nature as human beings.” Over the years, she has worked to bring the stories and the storytellers to a wider reading audience. Her ease with the interview process gives insight into the tricky task of drawing a story out of her subjects that is engaging and unique. She prepares for her interview by reading everything the author has written, as well as previous interviews and articles about him/her. The result is The Book That Changed My Life, an inspiring collection of interviews with National Book Award Winners and Finalists. Diane Osen is also the co-editor of The Writing Life, a National Book Foundation anthology published by Random House in 1996.

About The National Book Foundation
The National Book Foundation’s mission is to raise the cultural appreciation of great writing in America. Since being founded in 1989, the Foundation has sought to fulfill this mission through The National Book Awards and through its unique, educational outreach programs. These programs, featuring National Book Award authors, allow communities to participate in the writing life of the nation by reading and writing together. Proceeds from book sales are returned to the National Book Foundation. You can learn more about the organization on their website: www.nationalbook.org

About the Author of This Guide
David Scott read James and the Giant Peach, and Charlie and The Chocolate Factory when he was a kid. Both books still linger in his imagination, and he's read both out loud to his three young children. As an adult, the book that changed his life was Irish poet Seamus Heaney's first book of poems, Death of a Naturalist.



Download a PDF of the Teacher's Guide

  • The Book That Changed My Life by The National Book Foundation; Edited by Diane Osen
  • September 17, 2002
  • Reference; Reference - Writing Skills
  • Modern Library
  • $15.00
  • 9780679783510

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