What Do Writers Read?

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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)

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46 thoughts on “What Do Writers Read?”

  1. Well, I”m still in my 20s, but the book that influenced me (at this point in my life) I read at 14 or 15: Beloved by Toni Morrison. As you said, I don’t try to copy it by any means, but it “opened that window” of what good writing can be.

    I suppose I can better answer that question once I”ve read and lived more. Interesting thoughts!

  2. well, i’m still in my 20’s…
    but- “life unlimited” is book that impacts everything i do
    ernest hemmingway
    stephen king’s on writing
    read john reed last year
    angela’s ashes and tis by frank mccourt
    i go through so many books. those are few off the top of my head.

  3. I went for a long time in my teens not reading at all. In my late teens, I picked up Complicity by Ian Banks. It rekindled my enthusiasm for reading again. I bought a few more Ian Banks novels (like the Wasp Factory and The Bridge), and then went on a classics spree, reading Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (great!) and Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 among others. Catch 22 turned out to be one of the biggest reading disappointments of my life. It took me three attempts at reading it to summon up the determination to finish it.
    Some of my all time favourites were Dangerous Parking by Stuart Browne, Basket Case by Carl Hiaasen and my current read, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.

  4. Joining you with a few remarks. I’m not in my twenties any longer (just behind the threshold of the also-very-beautiful thirties, actually :-). Anyway, why I put stress on this is that the older I get even more works influence my thinking.

    Although I admit there is much to learn from classics, I prefer modern literature. To mention the most influential writer of the old school, Edgar Allan Poe would probably be the name standing out. Maybe that is because I have translated his short stories (now to be published) to my mother tongue (Czech). But maybe it is the other way round, that wants to say that I probably started to translate his work because it had impressed me.

    Actually, the modern literature is a rich well of inspiration, I guess. As to authors, I would like to name Cormac McCarthy, Jonathan Coe, John Fowles, Chuck Palahniuk, Julio Cortázar, Italo Calvino, Alessandro Baricco, G.G. Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, J.L. Borges, Albert Camus, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, M.G. le Clezio, Louis de Bernieres, Juli Zeh and many others. As to Czech authors, I would like to mention Milan Kundera and Franz Kafka.

  5. My picks would have to be contemporary novels.

    These books left me with an impression of exceptional writing (and therefore good reading):

    The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
    Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
    The Secret History by Donna Tartt

  6. I read a little bit of everything: novels, magazines & newspapers, blogs, anything that I find interesting. I try to pick out what enables the writer get their point across and maintain my attention, whether it is the voice they write with, the word selection, or how they approach their potential readers, and apply it to my writing.
    The result may not be very high-brow, but the point of communication is to get a point across, correct?

  7. I took an english class in college that was a women’s studies class the semester prior. We had to read books like Jane Eyre, Mill on the Floss, and Emma. To make matters worse, we had to present our notes, typed out, on a bi-weekly basis.

    It was the worst class I ever took.

  8. College was a rude awakening for me. I went to Baylor University, and I expected a Baptist environment. I discovered the real world. I met an atheist for the first time, and he challenged me to read Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. I read it, and it became one of my most tattered treasures. He thought it would convert me to atheism, just as I thought the Bible would convert him to Christianity. I think both of us learned something. I ultimately read everything I could find by Ayn Rand, because I so admired her promotion of the idea that everyone should stand on his own two feet and use his/her own talents (even though she would not have said “God-given talents) to accomplish great things. In today’s world, I recognize the moocher society she described in Atlas Shrugged. Her stories were captivating, her characters were memorable, and now it almost seems that she was a prophet.

  9. I clicked on the “Slate article” link curious to see why Daily Writing Tips would encourage criticism of their sterling work.

    Anyways back to staring at the snow …

  10. Being an avid reader all my life, starting with Dick and Jane and moving ever onward, it is hard to say that any one author comes to mind. Twain, Hemingway, Hiaasen, Poe, Chandler, Biggers, Sandburg, Frost and on. Mysteries, biographies, novels, adventures and more. There is something to take from each that you read, be it good or bad. Just enjoy!

  11. I’ve gone through my mind the list of different books I have read… The three authors that come first to mind, and most specifically their stories, that have left invaluable imagery engraved permanently on the soul… Milan Kundera and his many different stories, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Meditations of a Solitary Walker (translated by Peter France), and A Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin. Peter France’s translation of Rousseau’s Solitary Walker is one of the best I’ve read. There is an even bigger list, but I’ll leave it at those three for now.

  12. I’m 33, and I’ve been writing stories since I was seven.. usually fantasy infuenced by fairy tales. But in my late twenties, Razor’s Edge changed how I write. I love the deveopment of the characters and the way the author used the narrarator as a minor character in the story. I believe the author shared the same views as the character and also shared the respect the narrator had for the main character, Larry.

  13. Mae West once said “Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.” With that in mind, here’s my list of books.

    These books represent a variety of genres. Most are fairly recently written, in the last 50 years or so, which means that the writing styles will be relevant for most modern readers. They are listed below in alphabetical order, along with a recommended book selection.

    Bellow, Saul: Humboldt’s Gift
    Card, Orson Scott: Ender’s Game
    Cherryh, C.J.: Cyteen
    Cormier, Robert: I Am the Cheese
    Doig, Ivan: English Creek (book 2 of a 3-book series)
    Eddings, David: The Belgariad (5-book series)
    Garcia Marquez, Gabriel: 100 Years of Solitude
    Heinlein, Robert: Time Enough for Love
    Hemingway, Ernest: A Farewell to Arms
    Hugo, Victor: Les Miserables
    Hurston, Zora Neale: Their Eyes Were Watching God
    Irving, John: Until I Find You
    King, Steven: The Shining
    Kurtz, Katherine: Camber of Culdi
    Oates, Joyce Carol: The Falls
    Pratchett, Terry: Interesting Times
    Robbins, Tom: Skinny Legs and All
    Roth, Philip: Zuckerman Unbound
    Rushdie, Salman: The Ground beneath Her Feet
    Sedaris, David: Me Talk Pretty One Day
    Shakespeare, William: A Midsummer Night’s Dream
    Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft: Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus
    Solzhenitsyn, Alexander: Cancer Ward
    Tan, Amy: The Hundred Secret Senses
    Tolstoy, Leo: Anna Karenina
    Twain, Mark: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
    Tyler, Ann: Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant
    Updike, John: In the Beauty of the Lillies
    Vonnegut, Kurt: Bluebeard
    Waugh, Evelyn: Men at Arms

  14. I love reading lots of stuff, From Dickens and Austin to Ray Bradbury. The stuff that made me want to take up writing, however was all “pulp.” Primarily Robert E. Howard’s Conan and Solomon Kane stories and Edgar Rice Burrows “John Carter of Mars” series. If I could get people’s blood pumping like those guys, I’d consider myself successful.

  15. I just finished reading Norman Mailer’s “The Spooky Art,” and he discusses at length what books influenced his writing. In his early books, he would pick books that he wanted to influence his novel and would read a little each day before writing. Later on, he got tired of reading other people’s things while he was trying to write his own, and stuck with the newspaper.

  16. What do writers read? Uh, that’s tough, mostly the wrong ones, rarely the right ones, yet never the perfect one. How do I know, well I’ve done plenty of reading, more than most. Yes you say, how can he say that? Well I was recently (the past 30 days) released from federal prison, I spent alot of time with books.
    Which writers are those? O Henry is one, Maugham is another, and of course Oscar Wilde. Two of these authors went to prison and a third should have, but thats another story…What would I suggest an author read if I was arrogant enough to give suggestions, uh, let me think a moment….No suggestions come to mind.
    Thats that.

  17. The Tale of two cities, David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, Great expectation, Jane Eyre.

    Dickens ALWAYS makes me cry. :'( I believe he was a real genius.

  18. Haifa,
    The Tale of Two Cities is the first Dickens I read. It was in 10th grade English. The teacher had everyone take turns. I couldn’t stand waiting for each student to finish plodding through his portion so I read ahead. I was never in the right place when the teacher got to me so she gave me a bad grade. Sidney Carton was my first love. Mr. Rochester was my second.

    I noticed last night that Public Television (Masterpiece Theatre) has a Dickens series coming up soon. They’re starting with Oliver Twist.

  19. There are several books that leap to mind, but the two that I think of when asked for books that have affected, impacted or changed me dramatically – “Ender’s Game” by Orson Scott Card and “The Prophet” by Kahlil Gibran. But there are so many others – in my 20’s I didn’t so much read books as devour them. I worked my way through classics, modern fiction, and everything (except romance) in between.

  20. In my 20s I sucked up science fiction more than anything else. The memorable ones include Robert Heinlein’s ‘Stranger in a Strange Land,’ Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘Foundation’ series and virtually anything by Philip K. Dick, who probably influenced me as a writer more than anyone with his uncanny world-building.

  21. I thought I was very much influenced by my favourite, possibly only, non Science Fiction author, Walter Wager. He quite often used a technique of focussing on a character without identifying them, with descriptions that cause the reader to make assumptions about them.

    It was only after I discovered some pages I’d written long before I first found his books that I realised I’d been attracted by someone being better at using my own style.

    20 years on I can still remember the way one of his books used a familiarity with his style to fool the reader with a red herring.

  22. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell influenced me a great deal due to his use of multiple literary forms. It is a fantastic work of fiction.

  23. there have been many books that have be of influence, from monster blood, to animorphs, even harry potter, even dragonball manga. but dickens has never been there.

  24. Sometimes our own writing style can influence our enjoyment of the books we read.

    In my 20s I read a book by Walter Wager and enjoyed it so much I hunted down as much of his other work as I could. He had a style so distinct that in one book he used peoples’ familiarity with it to throw them a curve ball.

    Some years later I was writing something and thought I was copying his style. Then I found a piece I’d started as a teenager and realised I had used this particular device, back then.

    Was I attracted to his books because I found someone else using my style in a more professional way?

  25. The book that influenced me the most when I was young was
    “A Day No Pigs Would Die” by Robert Newton Peck. It’s a coming of age story and is delightful in every way. I am in my early 40’s now and I still like to read it again.
    Other stories that had a great impact were:
    anything written by John Steinbeck,
    “The Good Earth” by Pearl S. Buck
    “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by Harriet Beecher Stowe

    and, most recently the book I love the best is
    “Jewel” by Bret Lott
    Bret doesn’t just write, he crafts. He’s an amazing writer.

  26. 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”.

  27. 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.

  28. 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.

  29. “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.

  30. 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!

  31. 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)

  32. 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.

  33. Dianna,
    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.


  34. 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.

  35. Anna,
    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.

  36. 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.

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

  38. 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.

  39. “Sign of Four”, “Valley of Fear”, and “King Solomon’s Mines” were the most influential books of my teenage years. I don’t know why I liked them so much, but even know I see their influence on my writing.

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