As an aspiring writer, one of the most important things I do is read. Throughout my years as an avid reader, I have fallen in love with thousands of characters, and the way they made me feel a shred less alone in a world that wasn’t always forgiving. I have puzzled over stylistic choices that have compelled and confused my developing palate. I have ogled at the utter beauty and intense emotion that can be provoked by the manipulation of a handful of words. I have felt dumbfounded with awe and appreciation for my favorite writers’ grasps on the human experience. All of these things and more inform my own style and aspirations as a writer, and here are a few of the books whose effects have been the most profound.
A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
I previously wrote about what it was like to meet the author of this book, the great Fredrik Backman. He is easily one of my top heroes in the writing world, and his dedication to his characters is one of the chief reasons that is so. Ove, the protagonist of this novel, is a deeply flawed, if not initially unlikable character, but Backman works hard to continuously redeem him throughout the book, causing the reader to fall deeply in love with the curmudgeon old man with a heart of gold. If I achieve one goal as a writer, I hope it will be to create characters that connect with my readers the way Ove and the rest of the cast of this novel did.
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
You know those books that everybody in your AP Literature class hated to read, but you passionately defended in all of the class discussions? Well, Faulkner’s masterpiece was one of those works for me. Even as an avid bookworm, I typically dreaded assigned reading in high school because I thought it “took the fun out of reading.” It wasn’t until I read this novel that I realized the value and joy in analysis and in depth discussions with my peers. Faulkner’s deeply flawed yet compelling characters grabbed me, and his stream of consciousness flow was easy to get lost in. He was the first man whose ideas and choices I felt implored to fight for, and I will continue to admire him through the rest of my writing days.
Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer
One of the biggest challenges I have faced as a writer is developing range and moving out of my comfort zone. Packer’s collection displays what it truly means to have mastery of just that. She tackles perspectives and situations that vastly differ from each other in each story, and none of them feel one note or contrived. I feel like many writers shy away from writing about things they may not truly understand, but Packer nips this in the bud, creating protagonists that feel equally compelling in each piece. One of the reasons I am so drawn to short stories is because they have the ability to evoke the same range of emotions and reactions as a lengthy novel, expect now you get to ride that roller coaster for a wild twenty minutes. Each of Packer’s stories feels like it’s own special moment in time, and I feel lucky to have experienced each one.
One Hundred Demons by Lynda Barry
Lynda Barry is one of those one of a kind, appealingly eccentric writers that you come across once in a blue moon. Her illustrated collection of stories, which she characterizes as “autobifictionalography”, is at once devastating, hilarious, and poignant. Barry explores topics ranging from racism, self-esteem, and dancing, and each of them has something for the reader to relate to on some level. She maintains a diary-like authenticity while still being elusive about which parts of the stories are truly about her, adding to the universality of the novel. The reader feels as if they are experiencing something truly intimate with Barry, but they also learn a lot about themselves and their own demons that haunt or grace their everyday lives. I know I did.
Push by Sapphire
One of the greatest things about the literary world is it’s ability to challenge you as a reader and a writer. I trudged through this novel over a five day stint in the mountains of Montana as a high school junior, and I don’t think I have ever had a more difficult or meaningful reading experience. Sapphire takes the words “daring” and “honest” to a whole other level with her novel which was adapted into the critically acclaimed film Precious. From her frank and disturbingly raw depiction of abuse, both physical and sexual, to her diary entry-type formatting riddled with spelling and grammatical errors, I found it difficult to take in more than a few chapters at a time, but I didn’t stop thinking about it for most of the trip. Novels with that kind of staying power must be doing something right.
Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling
Yes, yes, I know, but honestly, would a list like this be complete without some mention of The-Boy-Who-Lived? While I know there are individuals out there who do not share in my adoration for this beloved book series, I challenge you to find more than a few young writers who wouldn’t cite J.K Rowling’s masterful works as anything less than inspirational. There are few places I felt more at home in growing up than the halls of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. If only I would’ve been lucky enough to get my admissions letter in the mail all those years ago!