seven books i’d recommend to an aspiring writer (but, really, in general, to anyone) (by request on instagram):
this is a weird list for me to think up, mostly because i feel like there’s something very personal about the books/writing we’re drawn to — and, by that, i mean that we’re drawn to different tones, nuances, narratives, themes, even styles that respond to our own unique experiences and preferences, and there are so many great books out there that speak to those differences.
it goes without saying that this is a list that’s entirely personal to me, given the type of writing i personally aspire to and the themes that attract me. they aren’t really books about writing because i don’t find those personally useful/inspirational, but these are seven books that i find myself coming back to over and over again, especially when i could use some encouragement as a writer. (:
01. still writing, dani shapiro.
this is the only book on/about writing i’ve ever read. i appreciated it a lot, too — i stumbled across this book in a very timely moment when i was feeling discouraged because i was struggling in my own writing. i basically read this book thinking, YES! i agree! the whole time and immediately recommended it to my illustrator friend because a lot of the things shapiro says were things my friend and i had been talking about over the last few months.
shapiro doesn’t try to romanticize or glamorize the writing life (to be honest, i don’t know how anyone could. there’s nothing romantic or glamorous about it at all, “it” being the work itself, showing up everyday and sitting at your desk and trying to bleed words onto the page), but she talks about it honestly and openly, even when she’s discussing something like envy. i appreciated her frankness and that this book gave me a little kick in the butt and got me to stop moping and get back to writing …
02. the unabridged journals, sylvia plath.
the first time i read plath’s journals, i’d find myself spazzing out over how much i related to her. her internal struggles about being a writer and a woman and, oftentimes, a woman writer are laid out so bare on the page, and, to me at least, plath has always seemed so eminently relatable. it doesn’t hurt that i enjoy her writing, too, because there’s a rawness to it, even if there is a voyeuristic feeling to delving into her personal thoughts and records of her life. at the same time, though, it really is that rawness that i respond to, that humanness that makes her ultimately sympathetic and real.
03. the english patient, michael ondaatje.
ondaatje’s prose in the english patient — it’s hard to find words to do it credit. his words drip off the page, and there’s this liquid sensuality to them that wraps you up and doesn’t let you go — and it’s very languid, too, very smooth and rich but not overwhelming or smothering. the story is haunting, too, with the specter of war looming over them, and the language just serves the narrative and the settings so well. it’s so beautiful — read it out loud; the words roll off your tongue like lovely morsels.
04. the history of love, nicole krauss.
if we’re talking aspirational prose, i automatically think of nicole krauss because she writes about loss in the most exquisite ways. the last few pages of the history of love wring my heart — even now, just thinking about them, my eyes sting — and there’s so much heart in her writing, so much raw sensitivity and fragility, not of the weak sort but in the sense of the human body being a fragile, breakable but beautiful, living thing.
i also highly recommend her debut novel, man walks into a room. it’s not as stylized as the history of love, but it’s still beautifully written — and, again, the ways krauss writes about loss — i can’t get enough of it.
05. never let me go, kazuo ishiguro.
there is no book i have read more than i have read never let me go — in fact, i just finished reading it for the second time this calendar year, and i’m sure i’ll read it at least once more before 2014 is up. there’s a beautiful thread of unease running under this entire book, and it pulls tighter and tighter as you get near the end, until you’re just unravelled yourself.
ishiguro does first-person so well — i’ve probably said this before, but i think that, while there are many writers who are good at first person, there are few writers who are great at first person, and ishiguro is one of those few. he inhabits voice with such ease, so there’s a beautiful naturalness to kathy h’s voice, and that just unravels you more …
06. anna karenina, leo tolstoy.
i really should pick up the pevear/volokhonsky translation of this. in my opinion, there’s just no reason not to read anna karenina — it’s engaging; it’s a fascinating portrait of russia in the late nineteenth century; and, okay, i will concede that not everyone will be as in love with nineteenth century russia as i am, but tolstoy gets a lot into anna karenina, delving into themes like jealousy and passion and happiness and marriage but does so by telling a story through these characters in a very realistic portrait of an actual world.
and it’s fun! i think it’s fun. there’s such an opulence to this world that there’s a seduction to it. it’s basically tolstoy’s fault that i’m fascinated by nineteenth century russia.
the other russian novel i’d recommend is dostoevsky’s the brothers karamazov.
07. the corrections, jonathan franzen.
i can’t not put a franzen on here. when i reread the corrections earlier this year, the main thought going through my head was basically, these are real, fleshed-out people occupying a real, fleshed-out world, which honestly negates any kind of argument about likability or whatnot. and my thing with franzen is that he makes it all read so easy. the effort of his prose isn’t on the page; you don’t read him and think, wow, this guy is trying so hard to do something; and i admire that ease because we know the effort that does go into these books, not only his but any good book, the writing, rewriting, editing, again and again and again until it’s just right. and, sometimes, you can see that laboriousness dragging down the writing, but not so in the corrections.
and here’s a bonus thrown in: the opening passage to enduring love by ian mcewan. the whole book is brilliant and one of my favorites by mcewan, but that opening passage in particular is awesome. i typed it up here, so now y’all have no excuse not to read it. then go get the book and read it.