Writers must read. It’s where we get the idea that we can do that too – write books. Don’t copy. Duplicity is the realm of cheaters and frauds. Anyone can plagiarize. Anyone can steal. Only I can write. Maybe you as well. But before you put your pen to the page, read. A lot. All kinds of books.
Start with the works of William Shakespeare, because you can’t go wrong with anything he wrote. Yes, he wrote plays and sonnets, but the man was a master of everything story – character, plot and subplot, historical reference, humor, drama, story arc, metaphor, symbolism. Find a poetic or suggestive title in the bookstore? It may have originated from a line Shakespeare first wrote. Consider these famous books whose titles are sourced from the plays of the Bard. The newer books are all the richer if you also know the inspiration.
Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, from The Tempest, Miranda’s line, “O, brave new world That has such people in’t.” A monster might be no more cruel than ordinary souls full of wrath, and the storm within is as threatening as the one on the shore.
John Steinbeck, The Winter of Our Discontent, from Richard III, King Richard’s line, “Now is the winter of our discontent Made glorious summer by this sun of York.” History as warning to rulers that justice will ultimately prevail. Do they ever learn?
Ray Bradbury, Something Wicked this Way Comes, from Macbeth, the Second Witch’s line, “By the pricking of my thumbs, Something wicked this way comes.” Curses and the urge for power go a very long way to inciting ruin.
William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury, also from Macbeth, Macbeth’s line, “It is a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury.” Madness reigns and evil lurks when morals are bankrupt.
The Bible is another pinnacle of inspiration. I have no interest in converting you to my religion or even encouraging you to join any religion at all, and I won’t label you as anything but poorly read if you have no idea what might be found in the book. If you want to know something about life in all its complex permutations and messy consequences, if you might be intrigued by true awesomeness, the Bible is an exceptional beginning. Here is a smattering of books whose titles and story provocations are taken from the Bible, a book already so plumbed for ideas that even if you’ve never read it, it will sound familiar when you do. You can read any version to find the references.
Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon, from the eponymous Song of Solomon, sometimes called the Song of Songs, one of the Five Scrolls of the Hebrew Bible, or Tanahk. This is a love poem and a festival of passion worthy of a blush or two.
William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!, from 2 Samuel, chapter 19, King David mourns, “O my son , Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died.” It’s hard to find any passage exposing a man more bereft.
John Steinbeck, East of Eden, from Genesis, chapter 4, “and Cain went out from this presence of the Lord and settled in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden.” Banishment to the farthest corner of the world for the worst of sins.
Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises, from Ecclesiastes, chapter 1, “The sun also ariseth and the sun goeth down.” Ecclesiastes questions everything considered of value and demands attention to probing one’s own place in the world according to their personal virtue or lack of.
John Grisham, A Time to Kill, also from Ecclesiastes, chapter 3, “To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven…a time to kill and a time to heal.” Even murder has its foundation in the Bible, juxtaposed with living.
This portion of Ecclesiastes is so popular that you can find a book penned by someone inspired by nearly every line. It’s a list of daily attributions of life, and just about everything except bug collecting made it. My third book is written in 24 chapters, and originally I assigned each one a title taken from chapter 3. I eventually changed the chapter titles to a simpler format, but it wouldn’t take much of a sleuth to figure out which season’s time fits each section. I may yet be persuaded to return to the words of Ecclesiastes.
Turn to literary classics for other great reads, including books by: Louisa May Alcott, Isabel Allende, Maya Angelou, Jane Austin, Saul Bellow, Emily Bronte, Willa Cather, Joseph Conrad, Anton Chekhov, Charles Dickens, E. L. Doctorow, Fyodor Dostoevski, Emily Dickenson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Hardy, Homer, James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, Harper Lee, Gabriel Macias Marquez, Haruki Murakami, Vladimir Nabokov, Pablo Neruda, Flannery O’Conner, Ann Patchett, Sylvia Plath, Edgar Allen Poe, Marcel Proust, J. D. Salinger, Leo Tolstoy, Mark Twain, John Updike, Elie Wiesel, Walt Whitman, Virginia Woolf, and William Butler Yeats.
You’ve noticed that some are poets, some are playwrights, many are novelists, and perhaps some haven’t been dead long enough, or at all, to be considered classic in your mind. It’s a mighty long list and it would be much longer were I to list everyone who should be on the roster. Many of my favorite novelists are not, though their works are in my library. Haven’t read any or many of these writers? Time to pull up the easy chair and turn off the TV and the computer. Reading is your course of study if you want to be a writer. These works will show you how it’s done, how to improve your work, the goal toward which you should be heading.
Add your own favorite authors, especially those who write in your chosen genres. Give every book a chance but don’t tarry over any tome that makes your brain ache or gets you snoozing. If an author excites or touches you, go for the body of their work, spot the constancy or independence of their voice, their inventiveness, the return of favorite characters and repeated themes. Pay attention as you read, taking note of the craftsmanship, style, and literary elements.
We read to be entertained and elucidated, to learn about the world we aren’t part of, or moments hundreds of years past, or cultures entirely unlike our own, or circumstances too bizarre to fathom. We writers must also read to discover the skill of the masters, to spot the insight that marks great writing, to understand the mechanics of story structure. Submit to the knowledge that some – many – writers are much better than you, and use that as a model for your admiration and enlightenment. Consider how fortunate we are: the biggest whale, the most gorgeous flower, the shiniest gold nugget cannot read. Only people can.
Be wise and engage in intentional reading. But most of all, read.
Books image, blogs.lt.vt.edu, Google, public domain