I just finished reading Daniel James Brown’s bestselling book The Boys in the Boat. I know I’ve read a really, really good book when there’s a kind of sadness when I get to the final page, and I close the book in awe of the writer’s ability to tell the story. I’ve long said that a book has only two parts—story and writing. When the two come together and are handled by a talented writer, it produces a kind of magic. That was my experience reading Brown’s book.
As compelling as Brown’s storytelling, though, his writing was simply beautiful, not in a flowery kind of way, but in the way one feels in the presence of a master. Clearly, he is a master writer. And even though I’ve written professionally for decades, I learned a lot from Mr. Brown and was reminded once again that writing is truly an art form that can be as inspiring as a Michelangelo statue or a Monet painting.
All this made me think about the writing process and how fundamental reading is in learning the art of the pen. In a recent conversation, someone commented that they’d loaned a book to a friend who had returned it saying, “It’s written like someone looked up ‘how to write a novel’ and then followed the directions.” Fine writing just doesn’t work that way. Writing is best learned by absorbing, internalizing, imitating, and developing your own style—and that’s why reading is so essential to good writing.
That quote captures what make the difference between ordinary and extraordinary writers. It is, I suppose, not unlike the difference between an apprentice and a master. One produces; one creates. Masters go beyond the process—beyond the ‘rules’—and lift their craft to a new level.
And that started me thinking about the books I’ve read that taught me a lot about writing—and I thought it would be fun to make a list of books that every aspiring (and accomplished) writer should read. Not books about writing, mind you, (though I have some favorites there, too), but whole books, fiction and nonfiction, that take you to a different world and hold you there for hundreds of pages.
So, here’s my list—in alphabetical order—of the books that I think every serious writer should read and absorb.
A Gentleman from Moscow, Amor Towles (For character development)
All Over But the Shoutin’, Rick Bragg (For reading God-given writing talent)
All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doer (For overall structure and plot)
Anything by Edgar Allen Poe (For tone and mood)
Cold Sassy Tree, Olive Ann Burns (For how to open a novel)
Cutting for Stone, Abraham Verghese (For keeping the reader engaged)
Out of the Dust, Karen Hesse (For rhythm, imagery, and economy of words)
Sarah’s Key, Tatiana Rosnay (For how to set questions in your readers’ minds)
Seabiscuit, Laura Hillenbrand (For expert use of language and research)
The Boys in the Boat, Daniel James Brown (For the use of metaphors and similes, and research)
The Dubliners, James Joyce (For imagery and how to break the rules the right way)
The Education of Little Tree, Forrest Carter (For trusting your audience)
The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald (For beautiful language and imagery)
The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett (For how to make a character change)
Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen (For how to end a book; I didn’t love this book, but the ending made it worth the read.)
There are, perhaps, a dozen more books I could add, but these rise to the top. And although I’ve mentioned specific characteristics for each book, all these authors displayed almost all these characteristics….excellence in plot, structure, economy of words, engagement, tone, character development, research and authenticity, imagery, good beginnings and satisfying endings, well-crafted sentences, faith in readers, compelling stories….all essentials of good writing that writers can learn by reading the works of these master writers.
So, those are my picks. What masterful books have you read that taught you about writing?