Read wide and read often, but make sure you read these ten books.
“The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.”
-The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
Whatever I write seems to be influenced by what I’m reading at the time. That’s not plagiarism, just the way I use words. “Read widely and with discrimination. Bad writing is contagious,” P.D. James said. Every author one respects, from Mark Twain and George Orwell to V.S. Naipaul has recommended clear, simple, plain language. That is the most important rule, along with good characterisation and a sense of place and time.
This is a list of books, in alphabetical order of author for want of a better way, by storytellers whose tales hardly date and who write with charm and precision or humour without wasting a word. It is not a catalogue beginning with the Bible and Shakespeare and the Russian novelists or ending with bestselling contemporary authors. Not even Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy nor the Brontë sisters are on it. Of course we should read and may read and be influenced by all of these – but probably won’t, whether we admit it or not. I don’t mention dictionaries or thesauruses either, although they are mandatory.
These stories are impeccably written, clearly and concisely with economy of words and with a beginning, middle and end. The reader is shown, not told, and encouraged to believe and participate. We are the better for having read each one and write better ourselves for their influence and inspiration. “Develop craftsmanship through years of wide reading,” Annie Proulx said. Stephen King said “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
A.B. Facey – A Fortunate Life – The extraordinary, self-deprecating and beloved autobiography of an Australian who served in Gallipoli and returned to spend his life in East Perth.
Helene Hanff – 84 Charing Cross Road – Enchanting correspondence between an avid reader and her bookseller.
Patrick Leigh Fermor – A Time of Gifts – In 1933, aged 18, while monarchies still survived in the Balkans, Leigh Fermor walked from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople.
Ford Madox Ford – The Good Soldier – A gripping, baffling, ironic masterpiece.
Anne Frank – The Diary of a Young Girl – Anne was given a diary on June 12, 1942, for her 13th birthday. Three weeks later the family went into hiding during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. They were caught two years later and Anne died of typhus in Bergen Belsen concentration camp.
Norman Lewis – Naples ’44 – Lewis kept this outstanding diary while he was a sergeant in the Field Security Service of the British Army Intelligence Corps in southern Italy from September 1943 to October 1944.
George Macdonald Fraser – The General Danced at Dawn – A very, very funny collection of short stories.
Ngaio Marsh – A Surfeit of Lampreys – My favourite Roderick Alleyn detective story from one of the “Queens of Crime”.
Somerset Maugham – short stories – Every word has to count in a short story – and in Maugham’s they always do.
Barbara Tuchman – The Guns of August – Aged two and on an Italian liner with her parents on August 10, 1914, Tuchman witnessed HMS Gloucester’s pursuit of the Goeben and the Breslau in the Mediterranean.
“If a man write a better book, preach a better sermon, or make a better mousetrap than his neighbor, tho’ he build his house in the woods, the world will make a beaten path to his door.”
-Ralph Waldo Emerson