If you want to become a better writer, most successful authors will tell you to start by reading. No writer produces their work in a vacuum, and the best writers are masters at playing with genres, styles and concepts developed by their predecessors. If you read almost any author interview, they are usually happy to list the writers that influenced them. It can even be argued that what you read determines the kind of writer you eventually become. So, it’s important to choose what you read wisely.
The title of this article is a little bit misleading because if there truly were a list of books that every writer could read to improve their craft, there’d be a lot more published authors and a lot less variety. These are simply books that we here at StyleMatters think are compelling, innovative and worth a read if you’re on the hunt for some inspiration. We’ve done our best to create a list that combines both canonical texts and newer and lesser known works.
1. James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Joyce is one of the most influential writers of the 20th century (and some might say of all time). He invented stream-of-consciousness writing, was one of the most important writers of the avant-garde Modernist movement, and his masterpiece, Ulysses, is often argued to be one of the best books ever written. However, Joyce’s writing is challenging to say the least. A Portrait of the Artist is a good starting point if you’re a newbie. Make sure you get a copy with plenty of explanatory endnotes.
2. William Faulker, As I Lay Dying
Faulkner’s influence on American literature is far-reaching. His works capture the spirit of Southern America in all of its darkness and splendor better than perhaps any other writer. He has influenced other celebrated authors like Flannery O’Connor, Cormac McCarthy, and Joyce Carol Oates. Any Faulkner is worth reading, but As I Lay Dying is a wonderful mix of the grotesque and the sublime. It is funny, touching, infuriating and tragic all at once—no easy feat for any writer to accomplish.
3. Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey
We’re willing to hazard a guess that you’ve already read Austen, if not by choice then for a school assignment. But her first novel is often overlooked in favor of her better-known works. However, Northanger Abbey is a great read if you’re interested in genre play and meta-commentary on readers and reading. Plus, it’s also very funny.
4. Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange
You’ve probably already seen the film, but the book is well worth a read. A superlative example of dystopian science fiction, it is a masterpiece of world-building. Written entirely in a fabricated dialect, the book requires full immersion from its readers, but it’s well worth the effort.
5. Mary Roach, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers
Mary Roach is a master of the science writing genre. Although her books aren’t for the faint of heart, she brings a unique voice full of humor and empathy to the most difficult and often gruesome of subjects. Full of asides and brilliant footnotes, Roach combines the personal with the clinical. If you find the thought of reading about human cadavers too morbid, try one of her other books. If you’re a non-fiction writer, Mary Roach is a must-read author.
6. Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking
Joan Didion is another master of non-fiction writing. Best known for her literary journalism, her memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, is also a must-read. The book tackles her grieving process following the death of her husband and is already considered a classic on the subject of mourning. If you’re going to write a memoir or engage in any sort of personal writing, you should familiarize yourself with Didion’s work.
7. Helen Oyeyemi, White is for Witching
The most contemporary book on this list is not to be overlooked due to its newness. A rising star in the literary scene, Oyeyemi has already established herself as a force to be reckoned with. White is for Witching could be called a horror novel, but is not so easily categorized. Engaging with issues of gender, race and family while seamlessly weaving in mythological tropes, this book will leave you breathless. It is also one of the most truly terrifying books that we have ever read. If you want to improve your ability to write suspense or horror, this is the book for you.
8. Hunter S. Thompson, “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved”
This one is technically an article and not a book, but we wanted to draw attention to one of Thompson’s lesser known works (as opposed to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, for instance) that established his unique style of journalism known as “gonzo.” But you don’t have to be a journalist or non-fiction writer to get something out of Thompson’s work. He’s an excellent descriptive writer, and his manic, raucous writing style is almost immediately recognizable. Thompson does something with words that few authors are capable of—he makes you feel them on a primal level.
9. William Burroughs, Naked Lunch
Written via the cut-up method, the chapters of Naked Lunch can be read in any order. A confused and often disturbing drug-addled postmodern narrative, you’ll often find yourself having difficulty making any sense of the novel. One of the most controversial books in American history, it’s also one of the most innovative. Its influence has had far-reaching effects on popular culture, film and poetry. Because it’s such a challenging read, we recommend not trying too hard to make sense of the plot. It’s the impression and atmosphere rather than the words themselves that are important.
10. Toni Morrison, Beloved
Unless you’ve been living under a literary rock, you’ve heard of Toni Morrison, and if you haven’t read any of her work yet, you need to. She is one of the most influential American authors alive today, and her books are also milestones of American literature. Combining magical realism with incisive and often devastating social critique, Beloved packs a punch. Take our advice and read the book before you watch the movie.