Amid all the writing advice out there, I’ve come to realize that one piece is more valuable than most: “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” Thanks, Stephen King.
I learned how to read when I was three—which is a bit younger than most kids, so I may or may not be a prodigy. Growing up, my mom took me and my sister to the library once or twice a week. Each time, I’d leave with a giant stack of books and devour them in the days to follow. Twenty something years later, and I’m still usually reading a handful of books at any given time.
The books that have resonated with me the most over the years are vastly different in terms of genre, writing style, subject matter, and format. None is really close to my own writing style, but each has influenced me in one way or another. Of the hundreds and hundreds of books I’ve read in my life, these nine stand out.
1. And Then There Were None – Agatha Christie
The book that made me want to become a writer.
A reading assignment from my eighth grade English class, this was the first of many books I’d eventually read by “The Queen of Mystery.” In the novel, ten strangers are invited to a private island as guests. One by one, the guests start dying—each reaching their unfortunate fate in vastly different ways. I’ve always been drawn to books that keep you guessing, and this book did just that.
Reading this book—and during class discussions—I learned about the storytelling device known as “Chekhov’s gun.” Essentially, every detail you provide should contribute to the plot in some way. If the writer describes a gun mounted on the wall, the gun should be shot later in the story. Christie nails this device and keeps you on the edge of her seat throughout the entire novel. While little details may not make sense as you’re reading them, everything starts to make sense toward the end.
Mystery is probably one of the most difficult genres to perfect, which makes Christie’s writing even more impressive. In her autobiography, Christie explains, “I had written this book because it was so difficult to do that the idea had fascinated me.” She adds that the biggest challenge was killing off characters “without it becoming ridiculous or the murderer being obvious.”
Though the book is arguably her best and most praised work, she notes, “the person who was really pleased with it was myself, for I knew better than any critic how difficult it had been.” And that’s how it should be. If I’m not excited by and pleased with the words I’m putting out there, what’s the point?
2. To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
My favorite book (and the most literary title on this list).
When asked what my number one favorite book is, this is always the answer. It’s a feel-good tale of a young girl in a small southern town. Lee tackles racism, classism, injustice (and justice), and growing pains through an eight-year-old’s eyes. Though the story’s issues are serious, complicated, and, at times, heartbreaking, the message continues to move and entertain readers more than 50 years later.
I love this book for the storyline, the character development, and the unique way of approaching its themes. Yes, Lee’s follow-up novel, Go Set a Watchman, was recently published, but this is the book she’ll be forever known for. A book that keeps me turning the page, savoring its words every time I read it.
3. Less Than Zero – Bret Easton Ellis
The raw, edgy tale with a writing style similar to mine.
In my first college creative writing class, I had an instructor recommend this title to me—saying it reminded him of my own way of storytelling. Less Than Zero was Bret Easton Ellis’s first book, published while he was still in college (he’s also well known for writing the book American Psycho). I ordered the book and read it that weekend. While the rich-kid-home-from-college-and-doing-a-bunch-of-drugs story isn’t my style, the way the story is told, however, is.
The story is loosely based on Ellis’s own life, which may be why the writing feels authentic. It’s unfiltered—and not just in terms of language. Ellis’s writing is very nonchalant. He presents the events in a “here’s what happened; think what you want” manner. Though everyone always says “show; don’t tell,” I don’t think it’s always applies. Reading this book gave me permission to be short, blunt, and unapologetic.
4. A Series of Unfortunate Events – Lemony Snicket
The series that may have sparked my affinity for the weird and creepy.
Even as a kid, the stories I wrote tended to be on the dark side (I still have a story I wrote more than 15 years ago about two little girls who witness their dad killing their mom). I liked to leave my readers guessing or present them with a less-than-happy ending. I’m not entirely sure what caused this affinity, but reading this series may have been a contributing factor.
These books—most of which I read between the ages of eight and thirteen—were unlike any other children’s book I’d read. They were dark, creepy, suspenseful, and—most importantly—they didn’t leave you with the traditional happy ending. Though the stories are farfetched, Lemony Snicket (or whatever his real name is) still pulls you in and takes you on an emotional wild ride.
5. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – J.K. Rowling
The book that turned me into a Potterhead.
If I’m writing any list of books, you can almost guarantee the Harry Potter series will be on there. In elementary school, my brother was gifted a copy of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the fourth book in the series. I’m not sure if he had read any of the previous three, but for some reason, he only had this one. One day, in third or fourth grade, I was snooping around his room and “borrowed” the book (I still have his copy to this day).
Though I hadn’t read the first three either, I was immediately hooked. I read the 752-page book in like two days and then ran to the library to get the first three—which I read, in order, in about a week. I don’t read a lot of fantasy or science fiction, but I made a huge exception for the brilliant world J.K. Rowling created.
I love this book (still upset about the exclusion of S.P.E.W. from the movie) and the whole series, but I admire the author even more: a female writer who created the best-selling book series in history and became the first book-made billionaire. She’s touched so many lives with her writing, speaking engagements, and even through social media.
I can only dream of one day being that influential.
6. Sweetbitter – Stephanie Danler
The book that reads like word porn (in a nonsexual way).
The most recent addition to my most revered books, Sweetbitter was published in 2016. I discovered the book before it was released because I follow the publisher on Instagram.
The opening paragraph of the book reads:
You will develop a palate.
A palate is a spot on your tongue where you remember. Where you assign words to the textures of taste. Eating becomes a discipline, language-obsessed. You will never simply eat food again.
Already, I’m hooked. The language throughout the book is just as poetic and enticing. The story revolves around the twenty-two-year-old narrator who works at a well-known restaurant in New York and gets herself caught up in all the restaurant drama.
Minus the cocaine addictions and high-class clientele, the escapades took me back to the years I spent in the service industry. The author, Stephanie Danler, had similar experiences in real life (working as a waiter in a classy New York restaurant), which is how she’s able to create such vivid images as she tells the story.
Writing scenic descriptions and painting a picture with just words has never been my style, so I’ve learned to stop attempting it and be more authentic with my writing. But for Danler, who is constantly posting pictures of poems on her Instagram, the descriptions seem like second nature.
Do Judge a Book By its Cover
The following three books are ones I picked up solely based on the cover design. And, each one, despite being a totally random choice, still resonates with me for what’s printed between the bright colors.
7. Foxfire – Joyce Carol Oates
The book that I should have waited a few years to read.
I was at the library around the age of 10 or 11—browsing the Young Adult section—when I spotted a hot pink spine among the sea of black and white. I pulled it off the shelf, flipped it over, and noticed the bright orange back cover. At a time when I was trying to decide if my favorite color was pink or orange, that was all the convincing I needed to check out the book.
Foxfire is a story set in the 1950s about a group of high school girls who start a gang. Blood oaths, violence, vandalism, theft, you name it. The book gives you all of this and more—plus, a heaping serving of girl power. Hashtag feminism.
If written by anyone else, Foxfire may not have worked. But Joyce Carol Oates—who also authored one of my favorite short stories, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”—executed the story perfectly. What could have read as an angsty diary of events is a beautiful, powerful depiction of adolescence, friendship, and rebellion.
8. Barbara the Slut and Other People – Lauren Holmes
The book that inspired me to do something with my ongoing list of story ideas.
This is another newer addition to my list, as the book was published in 2015. Barbara the Slut, like Sweetbitter, was an Instagram find. I liked the boldness (in more ways than one) of the book jacket. The cover is plain white with the title written in a black serif font. Under any other circumstances, this combination would be as boring as it gets. However, expanding across the back and front of the book is the word “Slut,” appearing to be affixed to the cover with hot pink spray paint.
Naturally, I pre-ordered a copy of the book—on the title and cover alone. The stories were all standalone tales that tackled deeper issues than you’d expect based on the cover alone. And that, I think, is why this book has stuck with me. I like the bait-and-switch style of an in-your-face, playful cover being the intro to a much more emotional range of writing. Plus, in a genre dominated by full-length novels, I like that this short story collection holds up.
9. Room – Emma Donoghue
The book (with an equally great movie) that hits you right in the feels.
I was visiting my parents while in college, and my mom and I went to Target for some random things. While wandering the entire store (as you do), I decided to kill some time in the books section. With its front cover facing outward, Room was begging me to pick it up. Aside from the book’s title, which is written in different colored crayons, the cover is plain white. It was the playful, innocent look of the title that really drew me in.
I flipped it open and read the synopsis. A five-year-old boy named Jack and his mother—only called Ma—are being held in a prison, and Jack (who was conceived and born in the room) has never known anything outside of these four walls. I was already intrigued, but it was the mention of the book being narrated by Jack that really sold me.
Heartbreaking, terrifying, and poignant, Room is a book I’ll never forget. And, notably, the movie was just as powerful—accomplishing the feat of being the first and only movie to make me cry (even though I knew what was going to happen).