A One Year Reading List for Someone Who Wants to Write Better

We all read a few classics under the careful guardian of American education, didn’t we? Even though I might recall a rogue title, I can’t seem to remember the fluid genius that made those books great.

I remember a couple tragic scenes from The Great Gatsby, the woman hit by a car and the man dead in a pool. I remember Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird and law proceedings that furled my upper lip. Apart from this, I’m sorely missing that literary foundation all the liberal institutions of my upbringing so brightly promised. I don’t blame them, though. Even if they fashioned the most brilliant reading list of all time, I wouldn’t have appreciated it then.

Now is different. Now I have established my interests and taken stock of my passion. Now I approach, with reverence and awe, the crispy articulate pages of the greatest discovered writers. And I say “discovered” because I have to hope just a little bit that, perhaps, if I am never discovered as a writer, it will not discount my greatness, but only mean I wasn’t found.

My reading list is preceded by a renewed interest in the possibility of graduate study and the rather stark realization that I will only write better if I read more. So this list wasn’t made for the passing of lonely nights or filling of bored voids, it was made to guide and inspire the writing spirit. I pulled from other valuable lists (Modern Library), general English degree experience, and my own pure desire.

Bird-by-BirdBird by Bird, Anne Lamott: “If you have ever wondered what it takes to be a writer, what it means to be a writer, what the contents of your school lunches said about what your parents were really like, this books for you. From faith, love, and grace to pain, jealousy, and fear, Lamott insists that you keep your eves open, and then shows you how to survive.” goodreads.com

The Sun Also RisesThe Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway: “The story follows the flamboyant Brett and the hapless Jake as they journey from the wild nightlife of 1920s Paris to the brutal bullfighting rings of Spain with a motley group of expatriates. It is an age of moral bankruptcy, spiritual dissolution, unrealized love, and vanishing illusions.” goodreads.com

Play-It-As-It-LaysPlay It As It Lays, Joan Didion: “Set in a place beyond good and evil-literally in Hollywood, Las Vegas, and the barren wastes of the Mojave Desert, but figuratively in the landscape of an arid soul-it remains more than three decades after its original publication a profoundly disturbing novel, riveting in its exploration of a woman and a society in crisis and stunning in the still-startling intensity of its prose.” goodreads.com

homage to cataloniaHomage to Catalina, George Orwell: “In 1936 Orwell went to Spain to report on the Civil War and instead joined the fight against the Fascists. Both a memoir of Orwell’s experience… and a tribute to those who died in what he called a fight for common decency.” goodread.com

Atlas ShruggedAtlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand: “You must be prepared, when you read this novel, to check every premise at the root of your convictions. This is a mystery story, not about the murder of a man’s body, but about the murder—and rebirth—of man’s spirit. It is a philosophical revolution, told in the form of an action thriller of violent events, a ruthlessly brilliant plot structure and an irresistible suspense.” goodreads.com

the-catcher-in-the-rye-coverCatcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger: “The boy himself is at once too simple and too complex for us to make any final comment about him or his story. Perhaps the safest thing we can say about Holden is that he was born in the world not just strongly attracted to beauty but, almost, hopelessly impaled on it. There are many voices in this novel: children’s voices, adult voices, underground voices-but Holden’s voice is the most eloquent of all.” goodreads.com

ifyouwanttowriteIf You Want to Write, Brenda Ueland: “Carl Sandburg called this book ‘The best book ever written about how to write.’ Yet Ueland reminds us that ‘Whenever I say “writing” in this book, I also mean anything that you love and want to do or to make.’ Ueland’s writing and her teaching are made compelling by her feisty spirit of independence and joy.” goodreads.com

catch-22_coverCatch-22, Joseph Heller: “If Yossarian makes any attempts to excuse himself from the perilous missions that he is committed to flying, he is trapped by the Great Loyalty Oath Crusade, the hilariously sinister bureaucratic rule from which the book takes its title: a man is considered insane if he willingly continues to fly dangerous combat missions, but if he makes the necessary formal request to be relieved of such missions, the very act of making the request proves that he is sane and therefore ineligible to be relieved.” goodreads.com

the-great-gatsbyThe Great Gatsby, Scott F. Fitzgerald: “A portrait of the Jazz Age in all of its decadence and excess, Gatsby captured the spirit of the author’s generation and earned itself a permanent place in American mythology. Self-made, self-invented millionaire Jay Gatsby embodies some of Fitzgerald’s–and his country’s–most abiding obsessions: money, ambition, greed, and the promise of new beginnings.” goodreads.com

Elements of StyleElements of Style, William Strunk and E.B. White: “The hardcover version of the most indispensable writing resource features a new Glossary of grammatical terms; includes a new Foreword by Charles Osgood; and retains the classic principles of English style.” goodreads.com

ulyssesUlysses, James Joyce: “Almost every variety of human experience is crammed into the accordian folds of a single day, which makes Ulysses not just an experimental work but the very last word in realism.” goodreads.com

to kill a mockingbirdTo Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee: “Compassionate, dramatic, and deeply moving, To Kill A Mockingbird takes readers to the roots of human behavior—to innocence and experience, kindness and cruelty, love and hatred, humor and pathos.” goodreads.com

Honorable Mentions:
1984, George Orwell
On the Road, Jack Kerouac
A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolfe
Out of Africa, Isak Dinesen

Whats books would you add to the list? Have you read a book that changed the way you write or think about writing? Are any of these selections a waste of time?





  1. Reblogged this on After full circle and commented:
    A wonderful reading list for writers. A few of these I have not read, and I’m looking them up on Amazon right now!

  2. wonderful list! thank you.
    I would definately add a John Irving novel to this list, I’d suggest Until I Find You or The World According to Garp. He’s a genius story teller.

  3. Reblogged this on WHAT'S UP WITH ME AND STUFF and commented:
    I’ve watched the movie many times but never read the book. I need to get back and read some of the great books and and learn from the masters.

  4. Bird by Bird is one of my FAVORITE books to read when I need inspiration to write. Additionally, Atlas Shrugged will change your perspective on writing dialoge and character development — plus, it’s a damn good book. I read it last summer and vowed to read it once a year, until I lose interest or I have it all memorized. Great list!

  5. Do you have a favorite book from your childhood? I remember being transformed while reading “The Hobbit”, “The Secret of Nimh”, or “The Big Friendly Giant” as a little girl. I agree wholeheartedly that reading helps with writing as well as exposing yourself to many perspectives and styles. I’d add to that, what ignites your passion? What transforms you while reading as if the alchemy of another’s writing delves into your heart and soul and the only respite is your own expression of the written word through the expansion of your mind? Read that. No matter if it’s not what one “should” read. A couple of books I have absolutely adored recently “The Dovekeepers” by Alice Hoffman, “The Alchemist” by Paul Coehlo, and “A Discovery of Witches” by Deborah Harkness. Your MFA program sounds amazing! I’m going to check out “The Year of Magical Thinking” and “If You Want to Write”.

  6. I might add Brothers Karamazov, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and essays by Wendell Berry and Tom Wright. While we’re at it we should include Gilead and Home and other essays by Marylinne Robinson.

  7. Ahh. To Kill A Mockingbird is a favorite. Named my dog Scout, and no one ever caught the allusion. I love Writing Down The Bones. It’s a simple, neat way to clean up the way you write, really focus on what you’re trying to say, and weed out the extra fluff. A really, really good read!

  8. Love your list, Jane! i adored Bird By Bird: reading it felt like listening to a good friend who wants to help you be a better writer. Also love many other books on your list, and will check out the ones I didn’t know. I would add a few books on writing to your list that you might enjoy: Writing Down the Bones (a bit similar to Bird By Bird, with added zen), On Writing Well, and Spunk and Bite.

  9. “Bird by Bird” and “If You Want to Write” are two of my most beloved writing books. I am SO thrilled to see them on your list! I’ve only read the two memoirs by Joan Didion about the death of her husband and then her daughter, but my heart was left aching and in awe of her talent. Have you read anything by Louise Erdrich? She is a Native American writer based out of Minneapolis who weaves the most delicate and savage stories. I have a sense you may really enjoy her style. I’m excited to hear your plans about post-graduate work!

    • O I know, I’m reading Bird by Bird now and I’ve read If You Want to Write carelessly a few time. Brilliant, I tell you. I think If You Want to Write is especially looked over, but there is such a wealth of inspiration there! I’ve read those memoirs by Ms. Didion as well. So touching and thought provoking and real. She’s my idol. I am very excited to hear about Louise, I am not familiar with her. Will def be checking her out. PS. If you’re curious, HERE is the graduate program I am excitedly looking into.

      • Wow – this MFA program sounds incredible! With your writing skills as strong and natural as they are, I can only imagine how you would soar with the guidance of a mentor and a program like this. Please keep me in the loop with this!

      • Didion is my model as a journalist and a writer as well 🙂 I just read The Year of Magical Thinking: based on facts and studies, but very moving and personal at the same time.

      • Man, isn’t she good? Really, really good. The Year of Magical Thinking actually changed my life. She has a hypnotic way of weaving together the real and unreal, getting in touch with what you feel and dragging it up to the surface to show you.

  10. I know some people who will love your suggestions…I’m passing this on to them. 🙂

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