What Do Writers Read?

By Maeve Maddox

I’m always learning from readers’ comments. Something I learned recently is that not all writers agree that reading Dickens is a good thing.

Dickens is not my favorite 19th century novelist–George Eliot is–but I think that modern writers can learn a lot about scene structure and the management of multiple characters and subplots from reading his works. Admittedly, his sentimentality is often cloying, and his attitudes towards women infuriating, but every writer’s work reflects the prejudices of his time and place. And Dickens is fun to read. I challenge anyone to read a few pages of The Pickwick Papers without laughing out loud.

A few years ago Slate Magazine polled 23 contemporary writers, editors, critics, and agents about the books that influenced them the most when they were in their late teens and early twenties. None of the 23 chose a book by Dickens, but two named novels by George Eliot: Middlemarch and The Mill on the Floss. Two others chose Homer’s Odyssey.

Being “influenced” by a book does not mean trying to copy it. Many of the books we read influence us in subtle ways that enrich our writing without defining it. Some of them influence us by opening a window in our minds that wasn’t there before.

How about you? Can you recall a book that you read in your twenties that caused you to think about things in a new way? For me it was Middlemarch. I still love it enough to re-read it every few years.

Slate article
The Reading Experience (Reasons to read Dickens)

45 Responses to “What Do Writers Read?”

  • Jade

    I think I have the pickiest personality when it comes to reading(as well as other things.) I’ve read very little, the only books I like are the first four Dune books and I have yet to find something else that has piqued my interest!

    I’ve actually attempted to read other novels, some that are considered the best and most popular. Like: Enders Game, 2001: A Space Odyssey, the first few sentences of Stranger in a Strange Land was a major push away to me. I think Isaac Asimov is ok, but there is only so much about robots I can take. In fact, there was one story that did pique my interested but it was a very short story and part of me wished he had made a novel into it!

    The Dune books definitely changed how I look at writing and inspired me greatly! I’m only 24, so hopefully within the next decade I can find some other books that really interest me.

  • Uchenna

    Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness-though I cherish it was not written at all, continues to draw my unquenchable reading desire.

  • Efe

    i am still in my twenties.
    i guess prometheus Rising by Robert Anton Wilson, will be the winner for me.

    God’s debris by Scott Adams comes second.

    where i am in Nigeria i don’t get to see a lot of classical fiction novels to buy.

  • Anna Cott

    Thanks. You’re probably right.

    I will watch the 1940 film version and reconsider my views on her.

  • Maeve

    Austen can be an acquired taste. I don’t think I liked her at first, but now she’s a favorite author.

    You might like to approach Pride and Prejudice from the 1940 film version with Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier. It’s an excellent adaptation that the more recent ones have not managed to improve on.

  • Anna Cott

    Anna Karenina is undoubtedly one of the finest works of literature ever written.

    Memoirs of a Geisha is amazing, as is Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series, Harry Potter and Marsden’s Tomorrow When the War Began series (if anyone remembers that).

    I tried to get into an Austen recently (Pride and Prejudice) and while the talent is obvious to me and the sheer proportion of such a work, it did not interest me to continue reading, so I’ve put it aside for a while.

    I am 24 years old so I’ll pick it up again in a few years.

  • Maeve

    Stephen is teasing you because of this line:

    Matilda De Braose, a noblewoman in whales in the 1800s

    I think you meant to write Wales.


  • Dianna

    Um… she dies brutally. The death of her and her children, or at least one of them, is ordered by the king of England. And they starve to death in a dungeon.

    If that answers your question.

  • Stephen Thorn

    Dianna: Did the noblewoman get swallowed up ala Jonah, or was she some kind of protean icthyopathologist? (ducking quickly to avoid anything that gets thrown in my direction)

  • Justin

    Don DeLillo’s entire bibliography.

  • Stephen Thorn

    I can’t name one specific book or novel that “opened a window” for me, but in my junior high years I learned that there was such a thing as a porno novel! These were the equivalent of X-rated movies in paperback form (do they still publish such things in the age of the Internet?). I’d dabbled in writing absurdly amateurish porn myself, and suddenly I saw how it was done FOR MONEY! This opened a whole new type of writing to me, and I’ve done my share of writing in that genre (as many well-known authors have using pseudonyms — you’d be surprised) and even brought some of its techniques into my mainstream writing. Viva le smut!

  • alice

    “The Book Thief” for me.

    I’m have yet to reach that age of twenty two, and this book amazed me, simply by its writing. The tone and amount of details were spot on. I love reading this book over and over again. It stands apart from the rest.

  • Dianna

    This is an old post, and I’m still a teenager, but I had to comment.

    There is a book I read when I was 11. This book is called Lady of Hay, written by an author whose first name was Barbara but whose last name I can’t remember. It’s about a journalist in London (80s or 90s I believe) who is writing a series of articles, one of which is about past life regression (hypnotic).

    For her research, she gets hypnotised, and through hypnosis throughout the book lives through the life of Matilda De Braose, a noblewoman in whales in the 1800s (or 1700s, I haven’t read it in a while). It’s bloody, it’s gutsy, it’s got rape and love and murder and all sorts of stuff, but it is absolutely moving and absolutely amazing.

    That book will never leave me, will never stop being my absolute favourite. It’s about 800 pages, and I wouldn’t recommend any other eleven year old to read it because it’s so dark my mom won’t even read it, but it’s absolutely amazing if you can stomach it.

  • Karen Netter

    The book that changed my life was Homer’s Odyssey because it portrayed true love while also showing violence throughout the whole story so women and men would get a kick out of it, but i would not let kids read this story because it may be too graphic.

  • Evan Hodge

    In regard to finding a personal voice as a writer, there is no better way than to read the work of authors who grew up in cultures different to your own – and of course, to travel. You will grow as a person, gain a deeper understanding of world history, and have far greater inner resources as an editor of your own work. The last is the most vital. (Everyone else knows better than you how to use words, or how you should think about life or the wider word. But for a writer that state of mind will never do. ) Be daring. Be unashamed to provoke your reader to see the world in a different way. Challenge your own perception, go where thoughts become uncomfortable, go where things are not done as they are “back home”.

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