Above my writing desk I have a small shelf where I keep only the most inspiring and influential books I’ve read. When I find myself stuck, I’ll often take them down, open to a random page, and reread passages to be reminded of what mastery of the written word looks like. Here are the five ‘old faithfuls’ I invariably find myself cracking open.
It should be said that McCarthy sometimes isn’t the easiest author to read. He’s an immeasurable talent who plays by his own rules of writing, breaking countless others as he does his thing. But ‘The Road’ is arguably his most accessible work, and a hell of a piece of speculative fiction. The prose is minimal and frighteningly effective, weaving a bleak world with the all right words and perfect pacing. It’s so sparse and fluid; yet holds surprising warmth in a world created out of coldness and indifference. It’s mastery more easily digestible than some of his prior works.
If there’s one author I think is the perfect blend of literary and commercial, it’s Lehane. An insanely good storyteller, D.L. writes with real depth and goes quite dark, but the end product is smooth and authoritative. They’re the kind of works that make for terrific movies too (Gone Baby Gone, Mystic River, Shutter Island, The Drop). ‘Coronado’ is a short story collection that proves to be a crash course in the art form done right. Lehane makes writing look too damn easy, and I know from experience how unbelievably hard it is to pull that off. For such a small book, I got an awful lot out of it. Big ideas unfolding in small worlds are what you’ll find in Coronado.
This was the book that showed me how far you could stretch your prose and still have it sound dynamite. A drug-addled mix of loosely interconnected stories, reading it is like navigating through a string of dreams, both blissful and bad. The spectrum of themes is considerably wide. Everything from love and loss to happiness and sheer horror is covered. One moment the writing is slick as oil, the next it is jagged as broken glass. It’s downright chaotic in places where the mental states of the storytellers are in question. You know the main characters in this book are all unreliable narrators, but you still believe every word they say, because the stories Johnson tells are just that convincing.
Admittedly, short story collections are featuring prominently in this piece. They often prove to be great vehicles for authors to demonstrate their proficiency in an array of subjects and styles. As well as a master of short stories, Raymond Carver was a master of minimalism with rarely a word wasted. He’s an author whose works should be read by everyone. In all honesty, I didn’t even enjoy some of the stories in this collection, but that doesn’t diminish the skill and craftsmanship contained in each and every one. His ability to floor me with one flawlessly written and perfectly placed sentence still astounds me to this day.
Of all Mr. King’s books, this is the one I praise the most. Part biography, part ‘How-to’ manual, this is a must-read for anyone and everyone. There’s so much for aspiring writers to absorb in these pages. Trials and tribulations, successes and failures, riding on cloud nine and hitting rock bottom; it’s all here. The insights provided while reading about SK’s long and lucrative career are honest and invaluable. While it might not improve your actual writing, per se, it will certainly help with your mentality on the subject. When I finally put this book down, I found myself inspired and newly determined. When people ask me about the most inspiring books I’ve read, I always cite ‘On Writing’ as the book that really lit a fire under my ass to pursue writing as a career.