I have been reading for all my life and read a variety of different books. Many of the books listed here are highly recommended in their respective categories. Be sure to check them out if you are interested.
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In my years of writing I have picked up many different books on creative writing. Many of the books here helped me to learn more about the technical aspects of the craft, about the life of a writer, finding the right mindset or simply about the nature of writing and creativity. The books mentioned here are the ones that are most memorable to me and that I’d recommend to any aspiring writer. A word of warning: The most important thing for any aspiring writer is to sit down and write. Reading all of these books won’t help you if you don’t sit down and take action.
On the writing life
The books here focus more on what writing is and what the writer’s life is like. They might not focus on techniques as much as other books, but instead they focus on mindset, the general attitude of a writer or simply life. They are all highly recommended to get an idea what it truly means to be a writer.
Bird by Bird: Anne Lamotte’s book on writing is a great read. She talks a lot about the writer’s life, the mentality, about first drafts and especially about many of the problems a writer can encounter. Many of the advice in the book won’t be knew to people who already have some knowledge about creative writing. The reason I still recommend this book is simply because the chapters about mentality and the writer’s life. Give it a try.
Zen in the Art of Writing: This is a little book written by Ray Bradbury. He gives a lot of practical advice and tips on writing, which I think is great. What Bradbury mostly focuses on though are discussions about the mindset and the qualities a writer needs and he also gives a lot of insight into the life of a writer. It is a very quick read and can give you a lot of valuable advice.
Becoming a Writer: Dorothea Brand gives a lot of advice about self-discipline, how to build a routine, how to stick to writing and talks about how to unlock your creativity. The book also provide with a number of interesting exercises on the same topic. For this alone the book is highly recommended, especially for aspiring writers.
The Faith of a Writer: This book is written by author Joyce Carol Oates. While she gives some practical advice on writing it was rather her thoughts about being a writer, a writer’s mentality and other topics of the writer’s life that I enjoyed the most.
The Writing Life: Annie Dillard’s book on writing just feels nice to read. It talks about the beauty of writing, the writer’s life and generally being an artist. She says that writing is in a way looking back at the world with the same wonder as a child. It is a short, yet beautiful little book. Some of the things in this book deeply resonated with me.
Techniques of Writing
The books here focus on the technical aspects of writing. They give detailed descriptions and advice on every aspect of the craft of writing. Most of these books are more technical handbooks. They are not designed for simple reading, but more for looking up information on the technical aspects.
On Writing: Pretty much one of the most known books on writing. Stephen King’s book discusses a lot of technical aspects of writing in the second part of this little book. His advice is great and invaluable, but it is also very basic and not too in-depth. The first part of the book is also very enjoyable, because King talks a lot about his life and how he became a writer.
The Elements of Style: A must read for anyone who wants to write in English. The newest edition of this little book includes advice on many more contemporary topics, for example word processing software. I deem this book pretty much essential reading. The reason is simply that this book will teach you anything you need or should know about grammar and style. Remember: To break the rules you have to know them first.
The Art of Fiction: Probably the best and most detailed book on writing I have read. Gardner gives great and amazing advice on the craft of writing and discusses many of the more advanced topics such as rhythm or theme that are missing in many other books. Gardner’s writing can seem somewhat overblown or even pretentious at times, but don’t make the mistake of disregarding for that reason. I can also recommend his other book ‘On Becoming a Novelist’ in which he talks more about the nature of being a writer and the qualities a writer needs.
Stein On Writing: Yet another amazing book that has tons of really helpful advice. Sol Stein provides us with advice from a lifelong career in writing and publication. The advice in this book is very detailed and he often provides us with examples from popular literature. Some of the chapters in this book discuss the topic of writing nonfiction or both fiction and nonfiction though.
Writing Fiction: This is not a normal book per se, but more of a writing course in itself. It starts on how to find inspiration and the focuses on one element of writing fiction per chapter. Each chapter is an in-depth discussion about the respective topic, for example dialogue or characters, and provides the reader with many useful exercises. A great book.
How to Write a Damn Good Novel: Another book that guides the reader through the process of writing a novel. James N. Frey talks about every aspect of a dramatic novel and in that regard he gives great advice. The book focuses on commercial fiction and unfortunately doesn’t talk about more advanced topic. What makes this book great are the many examples he gives his readers, especially on the topic of outlining and planning a novel.
How Not to Write a Novel: This is the odd one out of the list, but that doesn’t mean it is not a great book. The book takes a different approach and talks about all the things a writer should NOT do. The bad examples in the overall style of the book are hilarious at times. I learned a lot from this book, especially on what things not to do. If you are an advanced writer who looks for a book that will provide him with help on specific topics, this is the book for you.
The books here talk more about what it means to be creative and take a look at not just writing, but creative work as a whole. I highly recommend these two, because they give you great insight on creative activity.
Art & Fear: I’d say this book is recommended reading for anyone who wants to be an artist. The book focus on many of the mental barriers that we encounter when it comes to being an artist. A lot of focus too is given on the topics of creativity, how to get more creative, but also what it means to be an artist. It gives many examples from famous artists and it discusses many of the misconceptions about making art. It is a book that was written by artists for artists. A great read.
Steal Like an Artist: This handy little book provides you with anything you need to become more creative. The book consists of many examples, tips, hints and charts on how to reach out to your creative side. The information in the book might at times feel like it is a little simple or self-explanatory, but it is a fact, that we often don’t consider these things at all. A fun and interesting read that gives you a lot to think about.
Biographies and memories
These books don’t hold practical tips on writing. It can be very interesting and even inspiring to see how other writers lived and how they went about their daily life. Often these types of books also provide you with an insight into their creative process, which is valuable in itself.
A Moveable Feast: This little gem by Hemingway is an amazing read. In here he reminiscences about his life in Pars as a young man. He recalls the time he spent with Gertrud Stein and Scott Fitzgerald. It is the type of book that really gives you the feeling of a writer’s life. For me it was the type of book that made me feel happy and made me want to pack my bags, move to a different city and live by the pen. The book also provides us with a very private picture of a young Hemingway and shows us what an interesting, yet strange man Fitzgerald was. I can’t recommend this book enough to both, fans of Hemingway and people who consider a career in the arts.
A Writer’s Diary: Here we have the collected diaries by Virginia Woolf. The book shows us a very private side of her and at times shows how troubled a person she was. The book shows how hard it can be to write novels as well as finishing them. In the many pages of this book you can find some great advice on writing and being a writer here and there, but it is mainly a biography of Woolf. I really enjoyed the read, but the book can be quite depressing at times, which is not surprising considering Woolf’s character. The book not so much teaches you about the craft, but instead shows you the inner workings of an often troubled writer.
The following is a short list of books that I think everyone should read and that I think are highly enjoyable, either because of the writing, the content or their ideas.
Crime and Punishment: The book that sparked my interest in classical literature. Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment is the story of the young Raskolnikov who brutally murders an old woman – a pawnbroker whom he regards as “stupid, ailing, greedy…good for nothing”. The novel focuses a lot on how Raskolnikov deals with the gruesome deed and the consequences he has to face. Before I read Crime and Punishment I mostly read fantasy or horror novels, so the concepts and ideas conveyed in this book were completely new to me.
Doctor Zhivago: Another Russian classic written by Boris Pasternak. The book tells the life story of Yuri Pasternak. The novel deals with the terrible effects of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath. It is a very tragic, yet beautiful written story. The thing that I found most enjoyable and best showed Pasternak’s talent was his use of dialogue. It is truly one of the greatest novels I ever read.
War and Peace: There is not much to say about Leo Tolstoy’s epic masterpiece War and Peace. I love this novel. It is not only the story Tolstoy tells, but his picture of Napoleonic Russia and his characters that are outstanding. Tolstoy is one of the few writers who I regard as a genius in terms of characters. Highly recommended to anyone with an interest in literature.
2666: This contemporary novel is hard to describe. I think it is one of the books you either love or hate. The book is very well written and divided into five parts that are only loosely related. It is not telling a normal story, but instead simply shows us parts and glimpses from the life of individual people. It was an amazing read and at times I simply couldn’t put the book down, yet I can’t find the words why.
The Castle: Many people probably know Franz Kafka as the writer of The Trial or the Metamorphosis. The castle is another one of Kafka’s unfinished novels and tells the story of K who arrives in a small village and struggles to gain access to the castle and talk to the authorities living and govern over the village. The novel is a dark, surreal and conveys a feeling of alienation in the face of an unresponsive bureaucracy. The book itself can be described as typical Kafka. What makes me recommend it so much is the overall dark atmosphere and the lingering feeling that everything is wrong. A great read, even though the book is unfinished.
Kafka on the Shore: The first thing to know about this book is that it is weird. People who know the author Haruki Murakami will know what I mean. The overall story and almost all of the characters in this book are just plain weird in one way or another. Kafka on the Shore is the story of young Kafka who runs away from home and also that of an old man Nakata. The book itself is categorized as magical realism which is very fitting. The book is just a fun read. I really enjoyed the easy writing style and the overall absurdity of it all. I read other novels by Murakami but this one is by far my favorite.
Infinite Jest: Such a strange yet fun book. David Foster Wallace’s masterpiece Infinite Jest couldn’t have a better title. The book is set in an elite tennis academy and a clinic for drug addicts. What I can say about this book is that it is at times completely hilarious, in fact so that I burst out laughing multiple times while reading it. In public even. Now this book is not a comedy though, it is indeed a way more serious work than one would expect. It explores many questions about entertainment, desire and how it affects our need to connect with other people. A book that is somewhat different from normal fiction, both in terms of writing and storytelling, insofar as the conventional rules of writing fiction are concerned.
The Foundation Trilogy: I am a huge fan of both science-fiction and space operas and the Foundation Trilogy (Foundation, Foundation and Empire
and Second Foundation (Foundation Novels)) is as good as it gets. These books are not so much novels per se, but more a series of short stories that Asimov wrote. They tell the story of the fall of the Galactic Empire and the rise of the Foundation by help of the Seldon Plan. I’d describe these books more as ‘intelligent entertainment’ since they focus more on clever ploys by characters as opposed to general space opera action. Anyone who likes science-fiction should read them.
V: This weird book was my introduction to Tomas Pynchon and Postmodernism. V tells the story of Benny Profane and a number of other characters couldn’t be stranger. Things change as Profane befriends a man called Stencil who is obsessed about a finding out the identity of a woman simply named V. Set in many different locations it retells a number of weird, loosely connected incidents. It is Pynchon’s first novel but it already shows his vast interest in many different topics, his love for quirky characters and his mastery of the English language.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep: I like science-fiction as mentioned above, but I love cyberpunk. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is one of the first cyberpunk novels ever written. In the novel androids, called replicants, are banned from Earth and used for labor on Mars. The story focuses on Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter tasked with finding and retiring a group of rogue androids who fled Mars. The novel engages a number of philosophical topics, such as what it means to be human and paints a grim picture of our future. It is a great read and in my opinion Philip K. Dick’s finest work.
Madame Bovary: Gustav Flaubert’s timeless masterpiece. Emma Rouault, the protagonist, marries Doctor Charles Bovary and dreams of a life of luxury and passion. The reality though is that Charles is a dull country doctor and the provincial life the couple leads is different from what Emma dreamed about. As the story progresses she takes a lover and throws herself into a devastating spiral of despair and deceit. The writing in this book is absolutely amazing. The descriptions make everything come alive and the titular character Emma is one of the most despicable yet interesting characters in fiction.
House of Leaves: I liked this book because of the unconventional presentation. The page layout is completely estranged at times, with pages that are upside down or that at times are empty except for a few lines or even words. It helps the general atmosphere of the book and the absurdity of the story that is told. Another thing are the footnotes in the book which at times refer to real and at other fictional sources. The story of the book itself is as convoluted as the layout. It is set up as a nonfiction book, talking about a fictional documentary about a house that is bigger on the inside than outside. Accompanying this are the notes of a man named Johnny Truant who edits the book and gets more and more obsessed with its content. Honestly it is as weird as it gets. While the content of the book might not be for everyone, the presentation in itself is worth the experience.
Absalom, Absalom: The first book I read by William Faulkner and in my eyes one of the greatest novels ever written. Faulkner’s writing is amazing, yet sometimes quite challenging, which the many long-running and fragmented sentences aren’t making easier. Fun fact: The novel is featured in The Guinness Book of World Records for the longest sentence in fiction. What made me include the book here is not the writing alone, but the story. The details the rise and fall of Thomas Sutpen and his family. The events of Sutpen’s life are presented from the narrative of various people. Slowly, as the novel progresses, more and more is revealed about the man and his family. An absolutely stunning novel.
As mentioned before, I love learning so I am going to include a list of books that helped me to learn more about new things or awoke my interest in whole fields.
Sophie’s World: If you are interested in philosophy this book is a very nice introduction. It is of course not an in-depth discussion of philosophy, but it gives a nice summary of the major ideas of many philosophers. While it is of course not enough to understand philosophy it gives you a nice glimpse at and an easy way of getting into it. I’d recommend it to newcomers who don’t know much about philosophy.
History of the Peloponnesian War: One of the first books on history ever written. The book is a detailed retelling of the long war between Sparta and Athens by Thucydides. The description of the many events is detailed and well done. By far the most interesting part of the book was to me the many speeches that were held by important people at the time and which Thucydides did convey to the reader. There is much controversy about how much of their content is based on real events and how much is fictitious by Thucydides. A great book that at times can be challenging, but well worth the effort. A book that I picked up because it is regarded as a Greek classic and which got me interested in the field of history as a whole.
The Art Of War: There is not much to say about this book. It is THE classic when it comes to strategy and tactics. I highly enjoy the topic and especially the idea of using the many different formulas and strategies in everyday life and business. A great book that I see myself coming back to many times. It also sparked my interest in similar texts and ancient Chinese literature.
The 33 Strategies of War: My favorite book by Robert Greene. Now I am not someone who blindly follows the advice of others. It is the same with Greene’s book. The advice and the strategies given in this book are indeed very interesting. What I enjoyed the most though was the mainly historical examples that Greene included in this book to show how his strategies work and apply. The book also provided me with many further reading as well as giving me an interest in quite a few historical people. I can highly recommend this as well as Greene’s other work ’48 Laws of Power’.
Influence: This is the go to book on consumer psychology. I read this book about a year ago and I got a ton of valuable advice from it. The writing was both interesting and informative. The examples provided made sense and helped to show the principles that Caldini discussed. If you are interested in consumer psychology or you want to learn about how to sell to people, this book is a must read.
How to Win Friends and Influence People: This is the book that started the self-help genre. It is the written version of Dale Carnegie’s popular course on self-improvement. It was this course that changed the life of a young Warren Buffet, who is only one of the many people who recommend this book. In my opinion a timeless classic that gives you great advice and provides you with many historical examples and anecdotes to drive Carnegie’s ideas home. I’d recommend this book for almost everyone who wants to improve his success in life or business or who is simply interested in the topic.
Reminiscences of a Stock Operator: I picked this book simply because I read it was one of the classics of investment, speculation and stock trading. To my surprise it was one of the best non-fiction books I ever read. The book not only provides you with lots of insight on the stock market, but also with the historical and economic background of the times of Jesse Livermore. If you decide to give this book a read I’d highly recommend to get the annotated version with comments by Jon D. Markman. It gives you a lot more in background and information, especially about many of the big names in Wall Street and the US economy at the time overall.