“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” — Stephen King
To be a good writer is to be a good reader.
I am amazed at the number of people I meet who have no education or writing background—let alone reading experience—who think they can write a book. Most talented writers are talented even without an education, but I have never met a good writer who wasn’t also educated about, and addicted to, the written word.
Are you an aspiring writer with no major reading behind you? Here is your primer. (That said, there are hundreds—even thousands—of other books you can read to expand your vocabulary, mind and general knowledge.)
1. “Pride and Prejudice”
Nothing irks me more than when men scoff at the idea of reading this revered piece of English literature.
Yes, it’s about a rich aristocrat and a young woman from a mouthy, lower-middle-class family. Yes, there is a famous BBC series that tells the story of Mr. Darcy and Miss Elizabeth Bennet, and yes, it features Colin Firth in a wet, 18th-century button-down shirt after a quick dip in the lake.
The story is also about, unsurprisingly, pride and prejudice. It manages to include themes that relate to social standing, vanity, love, conflict, family and first impressions. (“First Impressions” was actually the original title.)
Like a good movie (for those of you who watch more than you read), you notice new details and conjure new emotions every time you revisit this book. A truly good book changes each time you read it, and Jane Austen knew what she was doing.
Cool word from the novel: solicitude
2. “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”
Like several great novels, this one begins with an orphan. He also happens to have a scar, a power-hungry nemesis, a red-headed best friend (Ron Weasley) and a bucktoothed gal pal (Hermione Granger).
This is the first novel in a series that taught children—and adults—to fall in love with books, even in the age of video games and virtual insanity. The movies made a couple of bucks at the box office, but before the films the story taught millions of voracious readers about the power of friendship, family, politics, oppression, life, death, sacrifice and, most of all, the power of choice. You go, J. K. Rowling!
The fact that I have a Harry Potter-themed bathroom is probably better off unmentioned, but it shows the power of the written word.
Cool word from the novel: wizened
3. “The Stranger”
I read this novel by Albert Camus in my sophomore year of high school and, once I read it, I never looked at life the same way again.
I wrote my honors English paper on the themes in this novel, and explored it again in college. Some of the topics may not appeal to everyone—they range from the meaninglessness of human life to death, Christianity, observation and the absurd—but they are intriguing to explore. I will never forget the first line or the last, but I don’t want to ruin them for you.
Camus was brilliant, and you will feel your world open wider when you read his work.
Also see: “The Plague,” “The Rebel,” “The Fall” and the philosophical essay “The Myth of Sisyphus.”
Cool word from the novel: gesticulate
4. “The Great Gatsby”
“Who is this Gatsby?”
The decadence of the roaring twenties seeps out of this superbly-executed novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald in such a way that you feel like you have entered his fictional world. Class, greed, the past and the future are all in play in this crazy ride of booze, babes and unrequited feelings gone bad.
Get the tissues ready and be prepared to think about your first love when you crack open this bad boy. Shake up a gin martini or sip champagne while you’re at it, because tragedy is imminent. If absinthe is available, try that. The green fairy makes an appearance in this color-heavy text, as do plenty of opulent references to summer partying and expensive shirts.
Indulge in the Jazz Age and read one of the best modernist novels ever written.
Cool word from the novel: somnambulatory
5. “The Rum Diary”
Most writers would choose the more obvious “Slaughterhouse-Five” or “Catch-22” as novels that defined the 1950s and 1960s, but I chose “The Rum Diary” for its beautiful simplicity.
By gonzo author and “Playboy” and “Rolling Stone” contributor Hunter S. Thompson—more famously known for the insanity and debauchery of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”—this second novel wasn’t published until 1998, and is most certainly pre-gonzo.
Partially autobiographical, the story follows a writer looking for work at a lousy newspaper in Puerto Rico. He encounters a variety of characters mostly fueled on booze instead of the ether, coke and other drugs of choice in Thompson’s later novels.
This novel is more pure, honest and simple. It’s a modern novel that conjures the world of greats like Ernest Hemingway, and the imagery of Fitzgerald (in this case, crappy hotels, beautiful beaches and ramshackle bars). In fact, it is said that Thompson actually typed the entirety of “The Great Gatsby” to get a feel for the words of a master.
“The Rum Diary” is a splashy option for the curious reading novice. Don’t miss the party dance scene; it’s a powerful trigger for anyone with a visual imagination. Simplicity in text allows a reader to create his own imagery, and that is an important lesson for any would-be writer.
Cool word from the novel: slovenly
6. “Great Expectations”
Like Harry Potter after him, Pip is a boy who finds himself going from an unappreciated nobody to a character everyone knows. Social standing and class are prevalent themes in this novel, as are ambition, crime, love, wealth and the loss of innocence.
At once a love story (with a cold-hearted temptress), a detective story (who provides the dough?) and a descriptive jewel (Miss Havisham’s house alone will have your mind disturbed and enchanted), this novel brings London and the natural beauty of the marshes of Kent to miraculous life. Remember, appearances are deceiving.
Cool word from the novel: ignominiously
7. “Lord of the Flies”
Civilized young boys turn savage when they are stranded on an island and forced to fight for food, friends and survival in this allegorical work by William Golding. Themes include the power struggle towards leadership and the loss of innocence. Golding explores conflict deeply in this text, forcing a reader to look at his personal beliefs and motivations. The young men in this novel have to grow up too quickly, which results in disastrous consequences.
“Lord of the Flies” illustrates the ability of any person to turn to evil, conjuring emotions and experiences of World War II and the true nature of humankind.
Cool word from the novel: ebullient
What novel do you think every writer should read? Share in the comments.
A version of this article originally appeared on the Straight North Internet Marketing blog.
This article first ran on Ragan.com in May 2013.