What books must any writer read? That’s not for me to say. I have, however, compiled a list of works that lecturers cited as must-reads at my recent Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing residency. This is NOT a definitive list of all of the top must-read books, but an of-the-moment selection with some old standards and some you may not have heard of. I’ve divided the list into craft books (instructional) and examples of craft well done (novels, memoirs, biographies, essays).
Let me note that this is not my semester reading list. I have twelve books I must read (and write critical essays on) during the next four months, but that is a list personalized to my study. There is some overlap; three of my assigned books are listed below. But this list is a broader snapshot of recommendations I heard and had the time and presence of mind to jot down.
- The Writing Life, Annie Dillard: A classic volume of essays in which the author walks her readers through the pain and joy of writing.
- Theory of Prose, Victor Shklovsky: The author breaks down the novel to its foundation and hints at the infinite ways a new one can be constructed.
- The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present, Phillip Lopate: The introduction tells you everything you need to know about writing to a reader about your life and your beliefs; the rest of the book is dozens of examples about how this form is a staple of literature.
- The Art of Time in Fiction: As Long as it Takes, Joan Silver: How to manage time in a novel.
- The Next American Essay, John D’Agata: The author collects one lyric essay per year spanning the last quarter of the 20th Century, showing the evolution of the prose form that presents facts that sing.
- The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, Jonathan D. Spence: A look at a 16th Century missionary to China and his development of a method for storing and accessing memories; promoted here as a tool writers can use to better tap their experiences in their writing.
- An Actor’s Handbook: An Alphabetical Arrangement of Concise Statements on Aspects of Acting, Constantin Stanislavsky: This venerable guide for actors can give any writer the tools she needs to perform readings of her works and speak in promotional settings.
- My Family and Other Animals, Gerald Durrell: A beautiful example of melding factual writing with memoir, in which Durrell focuses on the flora of the Greek island of Corfu but gives the reader much more.
- The Mind of a Mnemonist: A Little Book about a Vast Memory, Aleksandr R. Luria: This Russian essayist tells the story of a man with unlimited memory in what Luria called a “romantic science” genre, painting a literary portrait of an individual through description of science and psychology.
- A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan: A brilliant novel that works through its manipulation of time, moving the reader back and forth to different moments seen through different eyes.
- The Liar’s Club: A Memoir, Mary Karr: A study of an author who gives what any reader wants, the opportunity to live someone else’s life, with all the bumps and laughs one can find there.
- Fly and the Fly Bottle: Encounters with British Intellectuals, Ved Mehta: A strong example of a collection of interviews where the interviewer inserts himself less through personal revelation and more through his passion for the subject matter.
- Hunting for Hope: A Father’s Journeys, Scott Russell Sanders: An example by the accomplished essayist of examining an important topic (environmentalism) through a personal prism (his relationship with his son).
- Stop-Time: A Memoir, Frank Conroy: A classic work highlighting an author unafraid to combat romantic notions of the magical moments of youth, with stories of brutality and mental illness.
What books do you recommend?