I learned I wanted to be a writer when I was 16, through an odd twist of fate that landed me in newspaper class because I thought, mistakenly, it would be an easy A. From then on, from my first newspaper adviser to my college journalism professors, I was told one thing consistently: To write well, you must read well.
I have read countless books over my lifetime. I spent more time as a child at the library than nearly anywhere else, barring school and home. Some books you read to transport you to another place, as an escape. Others you read to gain knowledge, and others you read out of obligation. Some are good. Some are bad. But in addition to those emotional responses to the literature, there is often another lesson to be learned: how to write.
I’ve read books that inspired me to think more creatively and I’ve read books that I swore to myself I’d never emulate. But with each word read and each page turned, I grew as a writer. Here are the best books to read to become better at the craft (in no particular order).
1. FAY by Larry Brown
As one of the great Southern Gothic novelists in recent memory, Larry Brown combines love and dread and sadness and hope so easily in this novel about a poor Southern girl trying to escape the only world she’s ever known. He is not particularly poetic, nor does he wax on in metaphorical prose (as others on this list are known for). But he is straightforward and truthful in his depictions of rural Southern life.
What you’ll learn: How to write honestly about ugly things, and how to not avoid saying what you mean just because it might be uncomfortable to spell out.
2. THE BEAUTIFUL AND DAMNED by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Ah, Fitzgerald. If you know me at all, you know I wouldn’t leave him off this list. The Beautiful and the Damned is a twisting and (probably too) lengthy novel chronicling the life of Anthony Patch, a more tragic character than even Gatsby. I personally love Fitzgerald’s work while simultaneously hating every single character he has ever put on paper, and being able to make a reader feel those two things simultaneously is a skill.
What you’ll learn: How to write about people that suck. Sometimes you’re not going to like the interview you do or the character you’ve come up with in your mind, but if the story needs to be told, there are ways to write around their awfulness, or even use it to your own advantage.
3. TENDER IS THE NIGHT by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Yes, another Fitzgerald novel. If you’ve read any Fitz at all, you know his lilting prose—it’s iconic and has earned him a place in the history books as one of America’s finest classic writers. Tender is the Night is probably Fitzgerald’s most beautiful novel, with quotes like, “She smiled, a moving childish smile that was like all the lost youth in the world.”
What you’ll learn: Metaphor. Plain and simple. Nearly every sentence in any work by Fitzgerald is teeming with them. If you want to learn to paint pictures for your readers, reading Fitzgerald will help.
4. TENTH OF DECEMBER by George Saunders
Oh, George. Mixing satire and realism and absurdity in every single story. The work of this short story writer (who has also penned children’s books, essays and novellas) can often be found in the New Yorker, where sometimes the writing is so high-brow that it’s hard to take in. In his latest collection, Tenth of December, Saunders’ colloquialism and honest way of storytelling can be a bit abrasive at times, but has proven appealing to a wide range of audiences.
What you’ll learn: Versatility. I have never read a more versatile author. Every way of writing, every emotional one could feel when reading—it is all available in Saunders’ work.
5. NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDRA by Robert K. Massie
For a primarily nonfiction writer, I read very little nonfiction (in the form of books, anyway. I stay on longform articles online). However, I read Nicholas and Alexandra once in high school and again in college, and aside from the obviously interesting subject matter (Anastasia, anyone?), Massie has a real gift for biography. It’s not easy to take an unbelievable amount of research and turn it into something people will actually read.
What you’ll learn: Tips on chronicling, organizing and narrating longform work. It may not be exciting, but it is necesssary.
6. HEART-SHAPED BOX by Joe Hill
Probably the scariest book I’ve read in my entire life. I probably slept six hours total in the three days it took me to finish this book. Every time I closed my eyes, I replayed scenes in my head. And it’s not surprising that Hill can pull this off—he’s the son of illustrious bestselling horror writer Stephen King, so obviously the lineage is there.
What you’ll learn: How to grab the reader’s attention and hold on for dear life. We aren’t all blessed with being genetically predisposed to freak people out with words, but we can learn how to capture a reader for 300 pages or so.
7. FAHRENHEIT 451 by Ray Bradbury
Bradbury! I love this writer so much I named my pet bunny after him. Fahrenheit 451 is this science-fiction writer’s famous dystopian novel about a highly censored future world, and in addition to be teeming with beautiful prose (much like Fitzgerald), it contains a plethora of life lessons for reader takeaway.
What you’ll learn: Accessibility. Much of Bradbury’s work is somewhat basic in nature. It’s easy to follow and often has a lyrical bent. Everyone from children to adults love his stories. He found the narrative puzzle piece that fits into a variety of places and genres.
8. THE KINGKILLER CHRONICLE series by Patrick Rothfuss
Raise your hand if you’re dying a bit quicker because it’s taking so long for the third book in this series to come out! I personally am. It’s been nearly 10 years since the first book came out and yet we are all still hooked, asking for more.
What you’ll learn: How to manage lengthy pieces. These novels are long, the first coming in at more than 600 pages and the second at more than 900. It takes a skill to keep your readers entertained that long, and Rothfuss has perfected that skill.
9. TO THE LIGHTHOUSE by Virginia Woolf
Oh, Virginia. The first person to tell me that a “woman needs money and a room of her own to write fiction.” To the Lighthouse is one of her best-known works, and its main focus is to chronicle the trials and tribulations the life of a family living in Scotland. There are no crazy action sequences or super sexy scenes. It’s just a pretty story about a family.
What you’ll learn: How to write creatively about everyday things. Not every story you write is going to be Game of Thrones-level intense. Sometimes, the assignment you’re given or the idea you have isn’t going to be particularly exciting, but that doesn’t mean you can’t write it beautifully.