A Writer’s Must-Read List

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.




  • 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?

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48 thoughts on “A Writer’s Must-Read List

  1. Hi Patrick, some great resources here. I have a load of how to write books but only a couple from your top list. The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricc sounds intriguing, I’ll have to check that out.


    1. That was suggested by a graduate lecturer. He had us create our own memory palace, by visualizing entering an empty room and “storing” a memory in there by placing an item we’d associate with it in the room. But frankly, the story of a missionary who learned new tricks while in China sounds good on its own.


  2. Really great list (I need to finally snag a copy of “The Writing Life” and get my career in order)!

    I would add some literary classics however, for inspiration if nothing else. “Walden” by Henry David Thoreau, of course, would be #1. 🙂


  3. Patrick, for “Craft”, check out the just-released “Confessions of a Young Novelist” by the 77 year old Umberto Eco. A fascinating discussion of how intensely “true” a novel has to be in order to come to life for the reader.

    In terms of the “stories well-told” it seems we both like a similar genre: the semi-fictional, semi-autobiographical stories told by writers with strong voices. I would highly recommend “Ham on Rye” by Bukowski or “Cockpit” by Kosinskin.


  4. I’ve read only a few writing books at this point. I tend to read “at” books, rather than read them cover to cover–especially those I find a tad dry. Much more fun to open them randomly to see what bit of synchronous goodness they have for me in any given moment.

    And speaking of that, I was just about to say that I’ve read bits and pieces of “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser and “Becoming a Writer” by Dorothea Brande, and then picked up my wavy-paged copy of “One Writing Well,” (it got a little soaked at the laundromat one day, heh) and opened right to the Chapter entitled “Bits & Pieces.” 🙂

    On the other hand, I devoured every tasty morsel of Natalie Goldberg’s books, “Wild Mind” and “Writing Down the Bones, Freeing the Writer Within.” It’s been several years since I read those two though, I probably should re-read them. I’m feeling a strong need for that “freeing” thing 😉

    Off topic, but in that synchronicity vein, I find it fascinating that I so strongly resonate with the energy of birds, and the very first book that I took deeply into my soul was “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou. Love Maya. I wonder if she’s written any books on writing.



    1. Hello Dove,

      Love your description of reading “at” books. A nice approach. As for your connection to birds, have you read a new novel out in April called “The Bird Sisters” by Rebecca Rasmussen? It’s beautifully written, I think you might like it.


  5. I’m not much of a novel-reader, Patrick, but after reading the reviews on Amazon, including quotes from this book, I’m glad you suggested it. As you might have noticed from my tweets, I’m heavily into metaphysics–the Universe speaks to me (and all of us) in so many ways. This book represents a message that’s been coming to me lately. Heavily, just yesterday–the Universe can be relentless, ha. A message that frightens me actually, especially the way it’s put before me with the “Bird Sisters.” But I need to be frightened. And for most of us, including me, that seems to be the best impetus for change. The message is how our past weaves not only the present–but the future. And if we allow ourselves to stay rooted in and saturated by a past that wasn’t so pretty, then we can be assured the future will hold the same. Nothing changes until we change–until we release that past (and often that’s about re-living it for a while), accept all the horror of it, embrace it as something we grew and learned from…and move on. Otherwise, we just keep living in that “childhood home.”

    Sorry for the little side road to Bird-Sister Land, ha



  6. This is an intriguing list. I hadn’t yet heard of The Memory Palace, but I’d probably like to read it.

    One of the things I find interesting about this list is actually the number of significant absentees. There’s no Derrida, no Adorno, Stanley Fish, Frank Kermode, Barthes or even Harold Bloom. Ok, so they don’t focus on ‘craft’ per se, and Derrida teeters on the edge of unreadable — still, I’m glad I got to tussle with his rambling, half-demented philosophy. Also, no Paul de Man, Leslie Fiedler or Terry Eagleton?

    (Yes, I know your list is not extensive.)

    Anyway: The Memory Palace, A Visit from the Goon Squad and The Art of Time in Fiction are going in the Wish List right now. After your concise descriptions, I’m sold.


  7. This is a great list! Have you come across The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron? It’s not specifically geared toward writers, but I found it extremely helpful (not to mention inspiring) for tapping into my “creative child.” If that sounds too hairy-fairy (as it did too me when I first heard about it), she also gives a lot of sound, practical advice about cultivating discipline… and then finding joy in that discipline!

    Thanks for sharing!



    1. Hi Erin! Thanks for commenting. The Artist’s Way is very important to me, I first found it in the early 90’s, and the name of my blog is an homage to the book and to Cameron. I’m glad you gave it a shout-out here.


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  9. ibc4

    I’d add Stephen King’s On Writing.
    I concur with earlier votes for Dorothy Brande and Natalie Goldberg.
    From a purely screenwriting perspective; William Goldman’s Adventures In the Screentrade and Robert McKee’s Story are both excellent resources that any writer would benefit from.

    Great article, thanks.


    1. Yes, King’s book fits well in the must-read craft category.

      I’m not up on screenwriting but some of the folks who read this blog do focus on that, so thank you for including those resources!


    1. That’s a good-looking list!

      In some respects I’m not surprised your list varies from mine. I’m just beginning my MFA, and I suspect if I put together a “most-referenced” list in two years at my conclusion it would have some cross-overs.

      Mine is compiled from scribbles taken at lectures, so not only is it unique to my specific 10-day on-campus residency at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, it’s specific to my schedule; none of my classmates would generate this particular list. That perhaps leaves it short in the category of “definitive reading list” but based on feedback I’ve gotten via Twitter it seems to be serving well as a “I hadn’t heard of that book before, thanks” list! 🙂


    2. Upon second read of your list, I see it’s heavily focused on fiction, and most of the lectures I attended were on non-fiction or not genre-specific, so that’s one difference, I think.


    1. A great book, indeed. That is one of about a dozen books I squeezed into my suitcase when I went to the MFA residency. It wasn’t mentioned in the lectures I attended, but I’m sure many of the faculty would have included it in their own personal must-read lists.


  10. snookieboo@mailinator.com

    A head’s up: it’s Philip LOPATE, not LAPOTE.

    Also, many commenters have offered great suggestions. I’d only say perhaps find more great books written by women and writers of color. There are numerous terrific ones out there!


    1. Ah, my biggest disappointment with blogging — no editors! Thank you for catching my typo, I’ve fixed it. The irony is that book is sitting just to my left on my desk as I type.

      Nearly half of the authors listed there are women, as are many of the suggestions, but I’ll note a graduating student — Sion Dayson, who blogs about her ex-pat life in Paris at http://parisimperfect.wordpress.com/ — gave a moving lecture on James Baldwin’s life as an ex-pat and the role that played in his writing about being a black man and a homosexual. It was a fantastic lecture about an amazing writer, and in keeping with the theme of this post, namely what I picked up in a brief period of time, let’s add Baldwin to the list. She didn’t recommend a particular title, but she talked about how time in Zurich allowed Baldwin to process his experiences in Harlem, so let’s add Notes of a Native Son. http://www.amazon.com/Notes-Native-Son-Beacon-Paperback/dp/0807064319/ref=sr_1_6?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1311070180&sr=1-6


  11. “Write Like the MAsters” William Cane, (Writers Digest, 2009)

    I found this book to be very useful as it analyses the writing styles of greats such as Hemningway, Woolf and Kafka to help aspiring writers find their voice and style.


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  13. Ellen Jackson

    There are so many very good books on writing. One I recommend is a classic, originally written in the early thirties and republished after the author’s death: If You Want to Write by Brenda Euland. She deals with how to maintain concentration, as well as uses examples of ordinary people discovering how their “plain” talk was the clearest path to clarity.


    1. Fantastic, Ellen. That is a book that I am not familiar with. You have to love the idea of a book still being in print, that speaks well of it. I’m going to give folks a link to the book below, and here’s the Amazon.com review:

      “For most, the hardest part of writing is overcoming the mountain of self-denial that weighs upon the spirit, always threatening to extinguish those first small embers of ambition. Brenda Ueland, a writer and teacher, devotes most of her book–published back in 1938, before everyone and their goldfish got their MFA’s in creative writing–to these matters of the writer’s heart. Still, the real gift of the book is Ueland herself: She liked to write, she didn’t care what anyone thought, and she had a great sense of humor. You’re simply happy to hang out with her.” (Emphasis mine)


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  15. I just finished reading The Memoir Project by Marion Roach Smith. I loved it, and it actually moved me to get off my butt and get writing. I’m truly enjoying myself and feeling like I’m doing what I was “meant” to do.


    1. That book just came out, right? I’m so glad it worked for you and you’re moving forward. If you’re looking to write memoir let me add a book that’s been out awhile written by one of the faculty at my MFA program, Sue William Silverman. It’s called Fearless Confessions.


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  17. Kathryn Veal

    I’ll add another vote for Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird”, the book that finally made me believe I too could be a writer. I’d also suggest Peter Elbow’s ‘Writing Without Teachers”, now in its 25th anniversary edition. I was introduced to Elbow by Richard Washer, one of my writing instructors at The Writers Center. And for those interested in writing fiction, Elizabeth George’s “Write Away: One Novelist’s Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life” is a worthy addition.


  18. Lauren

    Also the Artist’s Way is a very helpful book. Along with Wild Mind by Goldberg, On Writing by King and Bird by Bird by Lamott, v highly recommended!


  19. Another vote for “Bird By Bird”….and for screenwriters, there’s nothing better than “Save the Cat: The Last book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need” (and it’s 2 sequels 🙂 by the wonderful, late Blake Snyder.

    Two classic greats for screenwriters and playwrights: The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri and the never-topped Poetics by Aristotle.

    But there are a number on your list that I look forward to discovering!! Thanks for sharing.


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