Anyone who’s serious about writing knows that in order to be a good writer, you have to be a good reader. This doesn’t just mean reading “the classics” – although they are important. Just like a balanced breakfast, it’s critical to include a wide range of genres, styles, and forms in your “writing diet.”
So here’s 10 pieces of literature every aspiring writer needs to read. These books not serve to build a strong creative foundation…they also offer insight and inspiration, to help you launch your writing into new territory.
- Metamorphoses by Ovid: This classic compendium of Greek myths is a must-read. The chapters are broken up into separate stories – in each story, a character (god, goddess, demi-god, or mortal) undergoes some sort of transformation. Starting with Greek origin myths, the tales within run the gamut from women enchanted into cows to adventurers descending into the underworld.
- The Bible: There are good reasons to read this classic text beyond religious education. The fact is, the Bible is themost read and most alluded-to text on the planet. Just about any story written in the last three millennia includes some reference, trope or arc based off the Old or New Testaments. Whether you’re perusing a New York literary mag or just settling in for a Hollywood movie, Biblical stories have practically a language in and of themselves. The basic fact of the matter is, every writer needs to understand this language to be truly literate.
- The Odyssey by Homer: The second installment of Homer’s 2-volume epic (you could call it the “sequel” to The Iliad), The Odyssey is another heavy-hitter of the Western canon. But it’s more than just an ancient reference work – this revolutionary piece of epic storytelling is still a page-turner today.
- Reading like a Writer by Francine Prose: This book has become a staple of most graduate writing programs, and I recommend it to anyone looking to up their literary game. Francine Prose fills this book with examinations on the power of the sentence and the paragraph. She explains how to understand allusions and much, much more – more or less covering the entire tool set any writer needs. This fantastic book is an essential for writers at any stage of their craft.
- A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole: Confederacy of Dunces is one of the best books you’ll ever read: it’s got brilliant high-brow andlow-brow comedy, complex intertwining plots, fantastic characterization and generally great writing. (Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day is another great book for the same reasons…but at 1085 pages might be too long for a “must read.”)
- The Power of Myth or The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell: Campbell was a master of myth. His books explore the importance of myth in culture and story – traversing from the earliest known myths all the way to Star Wars. Either of these books will help you get a handle on plot, theme, and the purpose of the hero in literature. Not only are these books an essential tool for writers plotting out their next written adventure – they’re also great reads.
- Best American Short Stories: Okay, so I’m cheating a little – this isn’t just one book. This annual collection is headed by a different editor each year. And every year, that editor is given the seemingly-impossible task of sifting through thousands of short stories published over the past year and collating the best into just one volume. Not only will this collection give you a good idea of the diverse stories being published today, but new authors are debuted in each collection. Any volume of this collection is sure be a rich source of inspiration for any writer.
- The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories: This anthology, edited by Ben Marcus, features stories from a wide range of contemporary writers – including some of the more underground and experimental writers working today. Many of the writers inside, such as George Saunders, Aleksander Hemon, and David Foster Wallace have received MacArthur Fellowships and other top literary prizes. So if you’re looking for critical acclaim, you could do worse than studying this one.
- The Paris Review Interviews: This voluminous series features insightful interviews with many of the world’s best and brightest authors. These groundbreaking interviews are an absolute well of inspiration.
- Anything by Jorge Louis Borges: This blind Argentinean writer received the Nobel Prize the same year as Samuel Beckett, and both are standout writers. Borges’ short stories remain some of the best out there and have inspired virtually every successful writer working in the past half-century. Entertaining, brilliant, imaginative, hallucinatory and cerebral, these stories will inspire, challenge, and excite any writer.
It’s hard to stop here – these are just my personal top 10. Obviously, this list could just keep going on and on.
Got any favorites that we missed? Share your top 10 in the comments below.
Samuel Clemens is a published author and former educator who now reviews literature study guides for Gradesaver. See them all here!