The title of this post is a lie. There can be lots of ones. There can be an infinite number of ones. But I'm going to ask you to narrow things down to one each.
"One what, Scott?" Did I forget to mention that? I'll start over.
I was thinking this morning* about advice I'd give to beginning writers, and my best advice would probably be "read a lot, write a lot, read a lot more." And then I thought about Francine Prose's excellent book Reading Like A Writer, which has a list at the back called "Books to be Read Immediately." So I asked myself which one book of fiction, if I had to choose one, would I tell a beginning writer to read immediately.
The short answer is that I don't know. I discount the idea that there is a single book I read in my youth that triggered the dormant "writer gene" and pushed me onto the path of being a novelist. And I completely dismiss the idea that there is one novel or book of stories that stands head-and-shoulders above all others. And I have no clue at all what the "most influential" book on my writing has been. So the idea of "best" or "important" or whatever gets thrown out the window, too. And I certainly don't mean simply to point to my favorite book, either.
Which leaves me, I guess, with this: What's a pretty good book that I think a beginning writer could learn something useful from?
Again, I don't know. But I'll give it a shot:
Dubliners by James Joyce. Beautiful short stories that are perfect jewels and every one of them is worth reading over again and studying for technique. Deep characters, humor, sympathy and insight. All perfect, as I say. The collection includes "The Dead," one of the greatest short stories in the English language. Say, I'm really pleased by my choice. And here I thought I was going to come up with nothing but excuses.
Now it's your turn. Pretend that someone has told you they want to be a writer. You hand them one book and say, "Then read this; this is writing." What's that book? Say what's good about it in a couple of sentences. All genres allowed, but you only get one entry on the list. Books about writing are not allowed.
*and since I write this on Thursday, I was actually thinking yesterday morning. It's almost like time-travel, but not quite.