4 Books That Show You How to Write

By Mark Nichol

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No, that headline doesn’t read “Four Books That Tell You How to Write.” The verb is show, and that’s exactly what I mean. This post does not list writing guides, but if you want to learn how to create a memorable reading experience, follow the excellent examples below. Note that this is not a definitive list of the most exemplary books; it’s just four I’ve read recently that have fascinated me — and made me think, “Gee, I wish I had written that” (and I can think of no better testimonial than that).

1. How to Distract People from the Fact That Your Book Is Educational by Making Them Laugh

Book: In a Sunburned Country (Bill Bryson)

Bryson, in this book and many others, sets out to entertain people — and does so with great flair (and success). But he also loves to share his knowledge (and his passion for knowledge) with readers, and enhances nutritious information with tasty toppings of humor and whimsy. This book about his travels through — and insights about — Australia (a nation that, given its environment, is even more improbably successful than the United States) delights as it informs.

Bryson has also written or edited books about science (A Brief History of Nearly Everything and others), language (The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way and others), and more, and even when his work doesn’t live up to expectations (At Home: A Short History of Private Life), it’s still fun and fascinating.

2. How to Top Off an Engrossing Story About Exploration with an Ironic Twist

Book: The Lost City of Z (David Grann)

Few tropes stir the romantic adventurer in us as much as a jungle-exploration saga, and this book, based on the archetypal expedition into Green Hell from which popular culture has derived many of its notions about the subject, does the larger-than-life topic proud. The author retraces the steps of legendary Great White Explorer Percy Fawcett (allegedly an inspiration for Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger), who, accompanied only by his son and the younger Fawcett’s best friend, set out to find evidence of a great civilization in the Amazonian jungle.

The members of the expedition never returned — nor, apparently, did many other adventurers who sought glory by attempting to discover both Fawcett’s fate and the object of his quest. Grann concludes this mesmerizing tale with a wry realization about the expedition’s goal that’s just too good for any but the most adept Hollywood treatment.

3. How to Debunk a Myth with an Even More Compelling Story

Book: Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War (Nathaniel Philbrick)

Philbrick peels away the facile fiction about Thanksgiving by booking readers passage on a sorely overcrowded one-hundred-foot-long sailing ship with a hundred passengers and more than two dozen crew members and integrating these additional travelers, through commanding scholarship and vivid writing, into the historic settlement the colonists formed against all odds. The story of their harrowing, heartbreaking first winter and their fumbling attempts to get along with their native neighbors, and an accurate account of their day(s) of thanks, stripped of schoolbook holiday hoo-haw, is refreshing.

This account is framed by details about what led a band of religious dissidents and assorted “Strangers” (split about evenly in numbers) to unite in this venture, and by chapters chronicling the tragic misunderstandings and missteps that led to war between their descendants and their erstwhile indigenous allies. Tied together seamlessly, these episodes describe in a nutshell the story of the United States.

4. How to Make Being a Dork Seem (Momentarily) Cool

Book: Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything (Joshua Foer)

Foer, the brother of the editor of the New Republic and of novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, holds his own against the literary accomplishments of his older siblings with this absorbing account of how he immersed himself in the highly esoteric world of memory masters and — well, I won’t spoil it for you. Chancing on information about people who demonstrate prodigious memorization skills in competitions they train for with the intensity of Olympic athletes, Foer decides to try it out for himself, and takes us along for the ride.

Along the way, we meet the man who inspired Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rain Man, as well as purported savant Daniel Tammet, whose memorization wizardry Tammet himself (perhaps disingenuously) attributes to autism, in addition to various mental athletes who seem to be exactly the type of poorly groomed, socially inept geeks you’d expect to find devoting much time and effort to a seemingly useless skill. But Foer also shares fascinating facts and history about memorization, and though he soon retires from his short career as a memory-competition participant, advocates the techniques he learned as tools any amateur will find beneficial in life.

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7 Responses to “4 Books That Show You How to Write”

  • Stephen

    The heading also doesn’t say “Five Books That Tell You How to Write” because the article lists four books. Other than that little typo, this is a great article and I look forward to picking up some of your recommendations.

  • Mellisa James

    I feel that we are often looking for interesting reading on various topics, but also maintain a blog readers every day, because you have interesting articles that we expect. Hoping that the material much more to come.

  • Jim Gammon

    Having 2 sets of grand-parents on the Mayflower, advertising blurbs such as this for Philbrick’s work caught my attention. However, the book failed as a “page turner.” Interest in my ancestry led me to finish it’s dull pages, but, as a certified English teacher, one or more rewrites seem in order.

  • Elizabeth Stafford

    I’d love to know what you mean in this statement about Australia: “(a nation that, given its environment, is even more improbably successful than the United States)”

    Specifically, ‘its environment’ (natural environment, cultural environment, physical location, intellectual environment etc) and ‘improbably successful’ (why improbable, and successful in what way? Economically, literarily, environmentally etc).


  • Mark Nichol


    I was referring primarily to the natural environment. Here in the United States, we take prosperity for granted, because it was handed to the first settlers on a platter in the form of abundant natural resources. Australia has a perimeter of ideal human habitat but is mostly desert, hence “improbable.” I share Bill Bryson’s wonder that Australia has prospered in spite of a relative dearth of natural resources.

  • Elizabeth Stafford

    Thanks Mark. I’m always interested in understanding how bits of my identity – in this instance, being Australian – are perceived.

  • Jabran

    Thanks for the wonderful post.
    @Mark Other societies and countries have gone through tougher conditions than US and Australia. Some are still going through that phase.

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