“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” -Stephen King
To be a good writer is to be a good reader. I am amazed at the number of people I meet who have no education or writing background — let alone reading experience — who think they can write a book! Most talented writers are talented even without an education, but I have never met a good writer who wasn’t also educated about (addicted to) the written word. Are you an aspiring writer with no major reading behind you? Here is your primer. With that being said, there are hundreds — even thousands — of other books you can read to expand your vocabulary, mind, and general knowledge.
Pride and Prejudice
Nothing irks me more than when men scoff at the idea of reading this revered piece of English literature. Yes, it’s about a rich aristocrat and a young woman from a mouthy lower middle class family. Yes, there is a very famous BBC series that tells the story of Mr. Darcy and Miss Elizabeth Bennet, and yes, it features Colin Firth in a very wet, very 18th century button-down shirt after a quick dip in the lake. Sigh. The story is also about — not surprisingly — pride and prejudice. It manages to include themes that relate to social standing, vanity, love, conflict, family, and First Impressions — which was actually its original title. Like a good movie (for those of you who watch more than read), you notice new details and conjure new emotions each time you revisit it. That’s the truth; a truly good book changes each time your reread it. You didn’t know that? Now you do. That Jane Austen knew what she was doing.
Cool word of interest: solicitude (Look these up!)
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
Like several great novels, this one begins with an orphan. He also happens to have a scar. A pretty freaky power-hungry nemesis. A ginger BFF and a bucktoothed gal pal (Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, respectively). This is the first novel of a series that taught children (and adults, for that matter) to fall in love with books again, even in the age of video games and virtual insanity. It made a couple of bucks at the box office, true, but before the films, it taught millions of voracious readers about the power of friendship, family, politics, oppression, life, death, sacrifice and, most of all, the power of choice. You go, J. K. Rowling! The fact that I have a Harry Potter-themed bathroom is probably better off unmentioned, but that shows the power of the written word.
Cool word of interest: wizened
Get your dose of philosophy! I was assigned this novel in my sophomore year of high school, and once I read it, I never looked at life quite the same way again. I wrote my honors English paper on the themes in this novel (by Albert Camus) and again explored it in college undergrad. Some of the topics may not appeal to all, but they are intriguing to explore, from the meaningless of human life to themes of death, Christianity, observation, and the absurd. I will never forget the first line or the last. But I’ll save those for you to enjoy, particularly the last, which I wouldn’t want to ruin for you. It still hits me hard every time I read it. Point blank? Camus was brilliant, and you will feel your world opening wider when you read his work. Also see: The Plague, The Rebel, The Fall and the philosophical essay The Myth of Sisyphus.
Cool word of interest: gesticulate
The Great Gatsby
“Who is this Gatsby?” The decadence of the Roaring Twenties seeps out of this superbly-executed novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald in such a way that you feel like you have entered his fictional world. Class, greed, the past, and the future are all in play in this crazy ride of booze, babes, and unrequited feelings gone bad. Get the tissues ready and be prepared to think about your first love when you crack open this bad boy. Shake up a gin martini or a touch of champagne while you’re at it, because tragedy is imminent. If absinthe is available, try that. The green fairy makes an appearance in this color-heavy text, as do plenty of opulent references to summer partying and expensive shirts. Indulge in the Jazz Age and read one of the best modernist novels ever written. But don’t let the eyes of eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg linger on you for too long…
Cool word of interest: somnambulatory
The Rum Diary
Most writers would choose the more obvious Slaughterhouse-Five or Catch-22 as novels that defined the 1950’s and 1960’s, but I chose this for its beautiful simplicity. By gonzo author and Playboy and Rolling Stone contributor Hunter S. Thompson, more famously known for the insanity and debauchery of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, this second novel from HST wasn’t published until 1998 and is most certainly pre-gonzo. Partially autobiographical, the story follows a writer who is looking for work at a lousy newspaper in Puerto Rico and encounters a wide variety of characters, mostly fueled on booze as opposed to ether, coke and the other drugs of choice in Thompson’s later novels. This one is more pure, honest and simple. It’s a modern novel that conjures the world of greats like Ernest Hemingway and the imagery of Fitzgerald (in this case, crappy hotels, beautiful beaches and ramshackle bars). In fact, it is said that HST actually typed up the entirety of The Great Gatsby to get a feel for the words of a master. The Rum Diary serves as a splashy option for the curious reading novice. Don’t miss the party dance scene; it’s definitely a powerful trigger for anyone with a visual imagination. Simplicity in text allows a reader to create their own imagery, and that is an important lesson for any would-be writer.
Cool word of interest: slovenly
Like Harry Potter after him, Pip is a boy who finds himself going from an unappreciated ‘nobody’ to a character everyone knows. Once again, social standing and class are prevalent themes, as are ambition, crime, love — and its damaging qualities — wealth, and the loss of innocence. At once a love story (with a cold-hearted temptress), a detective story (Who is providing the dough?) and a descriptive jewel (Miss Havisham’s house alone will have your mind disturbed and enchanted), this novel brings London and the natural beauty of the marshes of Kent to miraculous life in one’s imagination. Remember: Appearances are deceiving.
Cool word of interest: ignominiously
Lord of the Flies
Civilized young boys turn savage when they are stranded on an island and forced to fight for food, friends and survival in this allegorical work from author William Golding. Themes include the power struggle towards leadership and –once again!– the loss of innocence. Conflict is explored deeply in this text, forcing a reader to look at their personal beliefs and motivations. The young men in this novel have to grow up too quickly — resulting in some disastrous consequences. Lord of the Flies illustrates the ability of any person to turn to evil, conjuring emotions and experiences of World War II and the true nature of humankind.
Cool word of interest: ebullient
Spoiler alert regarding the word above: It doesn’t last!
What novel do you think every writer should read? Let me know in the comments!