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 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 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 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 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 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
Catcher 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
If 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, 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 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 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
Ulysses, 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 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
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?