A Writer's Reading List

Reading is the most constructive aspect of a writer’s life outside of writing itself, and I’m not so convinced that it doesn’t in some ways overtake the latter. As I talked about in a recent blog post, making a reading list for yourself can help keep you from falling into a slippery pit of convenience and guide you toward novels that could most help your prose.

My suggestions below are neither exclusive nor exhaustive. I don’t believe there is a master list that every writer necessarily has read though, because I think that every writer is different, every writing style is different, and so every book list should have different influences. All I mean to do here is recommend a few readings that have contributed to my own writing.

I’ll occasionally add new books to the list, so be sure to check back every so often.


The Grapes of Wrath
by John Steinbeck

There ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue. There’s just stuff people do.

I don’t know if there’s any better place to start a reading list than with one of the most critically acclaimed American classics of all time. That being said, don’t expect the story to keep you on the edge of your seat – this isn’t some thrilling tale of action and suspense – but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better example of masterful prose anywhere. Steinbeck wields theme and symbolism with unparalleled grace, but my recommendation for this book comes mostly from the intercalary chapters scattered throughout the narrative. For every chapter or two that follow the Joads as they flee westward, Steinbeck provides an arterial chapter wherein he builds symbolism and theme in absolutely breathtaking new ways. See chapter three.


The Time Traveler’s Wife
by Audrey Niffenegger

Everything seems simple until you think about it.

A lot of writers make the mistake of thinking that only classic literature deserves scrutiny and is worthy of emulation. Contemporary, even light-hearted literature can inform good writing in fantastic new ways. Take The Time Traveler’s Wife: a beautifully written love story — the novel uses brilliant narrative technique to tell a naturally riveting story in an exciting new way. As you can only do in a story involving time travel, Audrey Niffenegger juggles foreshadowing, character development, and emotional tension brilliantly. While reading, pay special attention to the way in which Niffenegger weaves together a multitude of different plot and character elements. Try to imagine how you would organize the development of such a multi-threaded narrative.


The Divine Comedy
by Dante Alighieri

The man who lies asleep will never waken fame, and his desire and all his life drift past him like a dream, and the traces of his memory fade from time like smoke in air, or ripples on a stream.

Any writer, regardless of style or preferred genre, should be at least partially aware of the roots of our craft. Yes, Dante’s Divine Comedyis written in verse — and yes, the language is heavy and difficult to slog through — but it is, without a doubt, the most influential work of literature in the Western world since the canonization of the Christian New Testament.

Of course, I wouldn’t expect someone to read the entire text any more than I’d expect them to learn Italian and study Dante’s work in its original language. It’s more than enough to glance through a summary and read a few choice selections from the narrative to get a feel for the language and style. Even translated, the artistry of Dante’s text remains utterly apparent. His diction, the masterful way in which he builds tone, and his incredible insight into the human psyche remain unmatched.


Calvin & Hobbes
by Bill Watterson

Nothing spoils fun like finding out it builds character.

Reading lists never seem to account for the fact that you don’t always want to trudge through classic literature or intense contemporary prose; do yourself a favor and leave Calvin & Hobbes for a rainy day when you need a break from Shakespeare and Dickens.

Comic strips are all about fluidity and timing. Not only does Bill Watterson show incredible mastery of these devices, he consistently addresses deep messages and themes in a lighthearted way. I grew up with Calvin & Hobbes, and every time I come back to its classic characters, I find myself learning something new from Watterson’s writing style. Pay special attention to how he creates miniature plot arcs within just a few panels; we can learn a lot from how Watterson creates a story from even the smallest event, while still crafting fantastic narrative on the macroscopic level.


Cyrano de Bergerac
by Edmond Rostand

My heart always timidly hides itself behind my mind. I set out to bring down stars from the sky, then, for fear of ridicule, I stop and pick little flowers of eloquence.

A more tragic love story has not, I think, been seen since Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Edmund Rostand creates a dynamic character in his titular protagonist – one able to induce incredible empathy from his readers. The slew of emotions are refined, yet intense; you walk away feeling, all at once, jealousy, pity, adoration, sorrow, and respect. In a play such as this, so strong an emotive response is unusual, yet we can learn much from the cause. As you read, take notes on Cyrano’s character build. What is his backstory? What are his weaknesses and strengths? What aspects of his personality most induce empathy, and how are they balanced?


The Book Thief
by Markus Zusak

I have hated words and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right.

This particular book is a great study in perspective, among other things. It’s an account of WWII told from the perspective of Death – a bit of creativity that affords the author a fascinating outlet by which to provide commentary on the novel’s events. The use of symbolism and motif should also be noted as you follow Liesel in her journey; with those tools Zusak crafts a story told brilliantly on both the textual and sub-textual level. Also consider the marketability of this story – it appeals to fans of both literary and historical-fiction genres, and I’ve seen it fit well within classroom settings.


The Hobbit
by J.R.R. Tolkien

May the wind under you wings bear you where the sun sails and the moon walks.

Tolkien’s works are widely appreciated as the founding writings of the modern fantasy genre, but it should be noted that the success of his books came from far more than innovation or inimitability. The entirety of his Middle-earth was built around his brilliant passion for language – more specifically, his love of creating and aging language. The glimpses we see into Elvish language in The Hobbit are mere shadows of the immense web of languages behind them. Eldarin, Quenya, Goldogrin, Noldorin, Telerin, Ilkorin, Doriathrin, Avarin, and Sindarin – all elvish languages descending from the proto-language Quendian and each with individual rules, patterns, and entymologies. Men too, in Tolkien’s world, developed the languages of Rohirric, Adunaic (or Numenorean), and Westron. The Dwarfish language Khuzdul, the language of the Valar (Valarin), and the Black Speech of Sauron and the orcs were also fully developed by Tolkien. It wouldn’t be unfair to suggest that Middle-earth was merely a medium by which Tolkien was given the opportunity and means to develop and evolve all these languages.

With this in mind, while reading The Hobbit pay special attention to the aesthetic beauty of his diction. His words — especially those from his own languages — are chosen with the care of a master linguist. Take the very word “hobbit” for example; even without context, it invokes similar sounds as rabbit, habit, or hob. It even has a realistic Old English etymological root, hol-bytlanor “hole builder.” This brilliance extends to every aspect of Tolkien’s diction and is worth the attention of any aspiring writer.

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