“Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.” — William Faulkner
One of the most obvious — and therefore, I think, the most trite — bits of advice for writers is to read. That such advice is considered salutary is, perhaps, a reflection on the state of the industry. I think it’s a truism that bibliophiles enjoy reading; what’s lamentable, then, is that we tend to read only what we’re already disposed to enjoy, thus depriving ourselves of a richer understanding of the literary landscape’s true extents. Faulkner’s advice cuts close to the bone; it may not be a function of how much you read, but rather the diversity and difficulty of what you read, that matters. When people say “read more,” they really mean “read other things.” Because when you only read what you already know you like, you miss the lessons that come from experiencing stuff you never knew you’d find valuable.
Although I’m now fortunate to edit and to write fiction, most of my life’s reading centers on non-fiction work. As an ethicist by education, I’m more likely to curl up with a philosophical treatise or historical survey than a bodice-ripper. But I have read romance novels. And sci-fi. And high fantasy. And, and, and.
So without further ado, and in the order my eyes alight upon them on my bookshelves, let me share with you the diverse and difficult works that have challenged me, moved me or made me a better writer, with the hope you may find them, or the ideas behind them, useful:
- What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (Haruki Murakami) — This short book intersperses the author’s opinions about the craft of writing with stories about the various long-distance runs he’s undertaken in recent years. In true Murakami fashion, the story jumps around like a locust in a wheat field, but the book reinforces the lesson that excellence requires discipline and the willingness to suffer in secret for a long time just to enjoy a brief moment of public joy at the end of the journey.
- The Righteous Mind (Jonathan Haidt) — In my younger days, I tended to be reflexively ideological. In my mid-to-late 30s, my idealism morphed into a rough center-right pragmatism, but I didn’t really obtain a solid conceptual framework for why the ideological battles of my youth lost their appeal until I saw it in the context of how Haidt applied the principles of evolutionary biology to contemporary politics. This book is an excellent resource for authors curious about the way group social dynamics function as they do.
- Why Is Sex Fun? (Jared Diamond) — I was assigned Diamond’s small exploration of human sexual behavior and anatomy as a textbook in my “Introduction to Modern Philosophy” course. The teacher — the late, beloved Sylvia Culp, who eventually became my graduate advisor — augmented the charm of Diamond’s story with colorful personal anecdotes. Nevertheless, Diamond’s work stands apart as the title I’ve most frequently recommended to others over the years. After reading it, I never looked at sex, dating and gender roles the same way.
- The Hobbit (J.R.R. Tolkien) — As a precocious primary-school student, I tackled Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy plus its prequel and some of its successors, like The Silmarillion. I even tried learning Elvish from the appendices! But it was The Hobbit that enraptured me. Its warmth and adventure and self-contained story piqued my interest in fantasy as an art form in itself.
- The Gathering Storm (Robert Jordan & Brandon Sanderson) — Yes, I’ve read all 14 volumes of The Wheel of Time. Plus the prequel, plus the compendium. I even have a bookplate signed by Robert Jordan framed on my office wall (the frame includes, also, a handwritten postcard sent to me by the divine Florence King, one of my literary heroines). My biggest take-away from WoT and the reason The Gathering Storm makes this list is because Jordan’s original six-book series lost its way. Starting most noticeably with the sixth book, Lord of Chaos, Jordan’s plotting became increasingly flabby and too much time, I think, was spent in sharing characters’ mental asides about the opposite sex and sundry other trivialities. Sanderson’s arrival — he completed The Gathering Storm and then wrote the final two volumes from Jordan’s notes — brought a crispness to the endgame. Sanderson cauterized long-bleeding subplots and culled the herd of secondary characters to bring the epic series to a satisfying end. The lesson here, I think, is that top-of-the-catalog cash cows suffer when the push for revenue outweighs the reader’s right to vigorous editing. The Wheel of Time is a case study in what happens when strong-willed writers aren’t paired with the Otto von Bismarcks of editing.
- Garner’s Modern American Usage (Bryan A. Garner) — As a former journalist, I’m well-acquainted with usage manuals. Garner’s, however, is magisterial, a class onto itself. Flipping through it, I’m astounded at how much I had forgotten about the English language — and how much I never learned in the first place. Every author should have this book close at hand; more importantly, every author ought to browse it occasionally to conquer the language’s unknown unknowns.
- Many a Slip (Gregory James) — A curious little book, consisting of an alphabetized list of rhetorical devices and errors in informal reasoning. More than anything, this reference volume helps authors construct plot-turning dialogue that’s less prone to criticism for being too superficial. Great primer on argumentative soundness and validity.
- The Devil’s Dictionary (Ambrose Bierce) — If William F. Buckley Jr. taught us nothing else, it’s that the right word at the right time elevates otherwise humdrum prose to the sublime. Bierce’s classic is the flip side of the coin: Imprecision and euphemism, although generally to be avoided, can be effected to great merit when done so with malice aforethought.
- Where the Star Came to Rest (Msgr. Gaspar F. Ancona) — This physically large and illustrated text relates the history of the Roman Catholic Church in West Michigan. Msgr. Ancona, a historian for the Diocese of Grand Rapids, developed a comprehensive cultural history, rendered with pleasurable subtlety for a book of its scope. What captivated me about the effort, though, is that I have direct access to the places (and even some of the people!) Ancona mentions, so I can explore his story for myself. Seeing a local history grow like that, and to gut-check it based on my own experiences, has proved to be an object lesson in how to relate events in fictional worlds.
- The New Penguin History of the World (J.M. Roberts) — For my money, Roberts is the foremost craftsman of the sweeping historical survey among contemporary historians. In an astonishingly compact but info-dense volume, he illuminates the human story from prehistory to the dawn of the third millennium. But the important thing is how he did it. His emphasis on specific people and specific anecdotes succeeded as an example of effective narrative history, but it also offers a model for authors about how to tell the backstory of a fictional universe.
- The Aeneid (Virgil, tr. A. Mandelbaum) — Stipulated, that you really don’t understand your own language until you seek to learn another. As such, the Latin student in me, prompted years ago to convert Virgil’s decadent dactylic hexameter into semi-passable English, appreciates the linguistic subtlety and sparse ornamentation of Alan Mandelbaum’s translation. Readers untrained in Latin won’t get the same joy from this specific volume as I did, but the larger lesson holds for other writers who have studied other foreign languages — that syntax, style and diction ought not be the red-headed step-siblings of plot, dialogue and narration.
- On the Shortness of Life (Seneca). Lump Seneca’s short text with The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius and The Art of Living by Epictetus. The three, together, helped me through a tough time several years ago, when the inordinate fear of aging weighed more heavily on me than it should have. For authors, though, the trio offer an insight into how classical antiquity viewed “the good life” — a perspective that should help us craft characters who escape our constrained contemporary worldview.
- The Art of Worldly Wisdom (Baltasar Gracián) — A 17th-century self-improvement guide, Gracián’s text cracks open the door into a world where a respectable person labored under deeper and more complex social and cultural encumbrances than most modern Americans endure. Interesting in its own right, the book is perhaps the best exemplar of a genre of “wisdom texts” (books of maxims with commentary) intended to help ordinary people thrive. As such, the book and others like it contain kernels of truth applicable even to us 21st-century sophisticates.
- Brave New World (Aldous Huxley) — This classic text reminds us that fiction remains a powerful didactic platform if wielded with non-Randian subtlety.
- The Spirit of the Liturgy (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger) — Before he became Pope Benedict XVI, Ratzinger worked as the chief doctrinal officer of the Catholic Church, serving through most of Pope St. John Paul the Great’s long tenure in the Petrine ministry; the cardinal authored many books as prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, most of them scholarly treatises on various theological points. In The Spirit of the Liturgy, a more accessible volume, he shared a deeply nuanced view of why Catholics do what they do in various liturgical settings. Although the book is unlikely to be of interest to anyone not already curious about, and sympathetic to, Catholic theology, it nevertheless renders an invaluable service. Ratzinger’s implied message is that the deepest form of why almost never distills to a slogan that fits on a bumper sticker or in a tweet. The rationale behind the complex is, itself, complex, but it’s approachable with due care by systematically exposing premises and conclusions. It’s harder to tolerate the deus ex machina or the overly simplistic didactic bent of some works after you have cultivated a healthy respect for the byzantine (pardon the pun). Keep this lesson in mind when you can think you can adequately capture a character’s motivation or a plot’s logic into a single comprehensive sentence; if you can, then almost surely your efforts are too superficial to be compelling.
- Karate-Do: My Way of Life (Gichin Funakoshi) — This book was required reading early in my time as a student of Uechi-Ryu Karate-Do. Funakoshi’s autobiography is, I think, a fascinating story on its own, but it shines as a first-person introduction to East Asian philosophy.
- Trauma and Recovery (Judith Herman, MD) — I read this book after encountering victims of childhood sexual trauma. Powerful. It addresses the specific physical and psychological manifestations of complex PTSD. Despite my belief that rape is a dangerously over-used plot crutch, I think Trauma and Recovery ought to be required reading for any author who seeks to write about rape, child abuse or military conflict.
- Political Order and Political Decay (Francis Fukuyama) — The second of two volumes, this book addresses the growth of professional, centralized government after the French Revolution, but also the various forces undermining it, particularly the repatrimonialization of government by the elites who had been displaced by the technocrats. Want to write a compelling political thriller? Cool. Read Fukuyama first.
- The New Theory of Time (L. Nathan Oaklander and Quentin Smith) — This book was the core textbook for a graduate-level philosophy course that I enjoyed about the nature of time, taught by Smith himself. Most readers won’t appreciate the dry, technical tone or the content, but sci-fi authors interested in time travel should, at least, follow Smith’s arguments about time as a concept. More generally, I think the book serves as a useful warning that the line between “hard science” and “speculative metaphysics” isn’t nearly as bright as most people think. A history of the recent unraveling of McTaggart’s Paradox ought to be an alarm gong for people who fetishize “science” to the detriment of philosophy or religion, especially in light of how much of Einstein depends on McTaggart.
- After Virtue (Alasdair MacIntyre) — Why do people do what they do? Although MacIntyre’s book is a response to recent trends in theoretical ethics, the book amounts to a broadside against mass-market contemporary ethics, which holds that consequentialism (“do what has the best outcome”) or deontology (“do your duty”) are the only legitimate approaches to moral thinking. MacIntrye argues in favor of virtues as elucidated by Aristotle and other ancient philosophers. Detailed, inside-baseball stuff? Yup. But you’ll need to dive into the deep end of moral psychology as an author if you want to really speak authoritatively about why people do what they do. A simple sense of “I know right from wrong, therefore I can write about ethical dilemmas” is the height of uninformed arrogance. You must first master the principles of moral theory to really understand the modes of human conflict.
- How to Think Seriously About the Planet (Roger Scruton) — Roger Scruton is an erudite polymath, writing extensively on subjects including philosophy, environmentalism and art. This book is important to me because Scruton, I think, squares a big circle: He presents a picture of environmental stewardship that largely matches the end goals of the far Left, but with arguments sourced from the Right. That he can do so is impressive, but that he does do so ought to make ideologues of any stripe pause to reconsider. For authors with their hearts set on allegory, Scruton’s approach emphasizes that all roads may lead to Rome, but not all of those roads follow the same predictable route.
Whew. Twenty-one books.
Were I to concentrate my sales pitch to a simple summary, it’d be this: The world benefits when authors tell their stories. But the stories that move us the most are informed by a deep understanding of the ideas that undergird the story’s scaffolding. This understanding comes from reading or otherwise experiencing each individual plank on that scaffold. You just can’t short-circuit experience, no matter how polished of a writer you may be.
I’ve shared my 21. What are some of yours? Leave them in the comments, below.