If you’re an avid reader, then you know all too well what it’s like to have bookcases in every room, hardcovers and paperbacks resting on bedside tables and living room chairs, patiently waiting to be read. Likewise, you also probably know what it’s like to spend a week’s pay on Kindle downloads, or leave the library with an armful of books knowing you’ll need to extend your borrowing time.
And then there are those books you’d want to have with you on that deserted island, or save if, god forbid, there was a fire. Or, if you’re like me, you pack them in a box marked SPECIAL BOOKS when you move and NO ONE CAN HANDLE THIS BOX EXCEPT ME.
I debated on whether to make two separate lists—one for books about writing and the other general fiction books—but then I thought, hey, it’s my island. I only get seven. Also, I'm not including my own because I’ll just assume they’ll eventually wash up on the island shore. Or I’ll write new ones to pass the time.
It’s hard to narrow down to seven, and a year from now I might find myself thinking: You put that on the list? Nevertheless, here they are, in alphabetical order by author’s last name:
Heartburn (Nora Ephron)
You’re going to be hearing a lot about Nora Ephron from me this year thanks to my new blog series and project. I first read Heartburn in the late 90s, while I was an undergraduate and in need of pleasure reading. Back then I found it likeable enough, but I wasn’t in the headspace to truly accept it for what it was and is—a story about telling stories. When I reread it years later, after I wrote and published my own novels, I found a whole new appreciation for it. I revered it even further when I used an excerpt from it for an exercise in analyzing writing style. Now I read it every other year, at least. Sometimes annually.
Not to mention it’s funny. That it’s not-so-loosely based on Ephron’s marriage to and divorce from Carl Bernstein is almost voyeuristic, although I didn’t care for the film version. Maybe because I’ve never stopped thinking of Dustin Hoffman as Carl Bernstein.
Best of all, Heartburn is just so cleanly written. So clear, so concise, so fluent—the mark of someone who’d spent a lot of time as a journalist (a common trait you’ll see in almost every one of these authors).
The Other Side of the Story (Marian Keyes)
Before I became a novelist, I thought I would offset my academic writing with personal essays, ones that were funny yet had a point. I began reading books written by David Sedaris, Douglas Adams, and essays by Dave Barry to try to glean some tricks from them. (I know. No women in that list. Hang on though, because look at who I’m featuring.) My friend Susan enthusiastically recommended The Other Side of the Story, and I bought it in a used bookstore in Cary, North Carolina. Since then I've been a big Marian Keyes fan, even though I haven't loved or read everything she's written (yet).
However, any book that makes me laugh out loud—repeatedly—is a keeper.
The story of three characters—Jojo, a literary agent; Lily, Gemma, an event planner with a lot to say; and Lily, one of Jojo’s clients who has been accused of stealing not only Gemma’s idea, but also her boyfriend—is told via letters, emails, phone calls, and third-person perspectives. Every character is flawed but so easy to feel for. Each woman finds herself in a situation she doesn’t quite know how to get out of, and there’s no better backdrop for both a comedic or compelling story than that.
I need to read it again. It’s been too long.
On Writing (Stephen King)
To some degree, I think this book is the writer’s bible. My twin brother presented it to me for Christmas the year it debuted, around the same time I was immersed in my graduate studies and reading everything from Kenneth Burke to Noam Chomsky. I was learning about rhetoric and composition theory—the study of how and why we write, if you will—yet On Writing is the book that transformed me into a novelist. I didn’t even know this at the time I read it.
I’ve read and collected many books about writing, and even written my own (stay tuned for the cover reveal tomorrow!), but On Writing is one of those I can read or listen to (read by King on audiobook) and, if not learn something new, be reminded of something remarkable about the craft. And I’ve always taken more to the craft aspect than the art aspect. I might even argue that every author on this list is a craftsperson.
I just don’t think you can go through life as a writer without it.
Edward Unspooled (Craig Lancaster)
Yes. My husband. But before Craig was my husband, he was my friend. And before he was my friend, he had written this book called 600 Hours of Edward that went through a similar journey as Faking It, from a self-publishing success to an international bestseller. We’d met in 2011 and were mostly the kind of Facebook friends who occasionally quipped in the Comments section, but it wasn’t until a couple of years later when we actually started reading each other’s work that our mutual admiration and respect truly developed. And after we finished reading each other’s fictional stories, we began to tell each other our personal ones. The more I learned about him, the more I wanted to know. This was all in a platonic sense. But after his marriage ended and the writing was on the wall (ugh—sorry. I couldn’t help it), we had already built a solid foundation on which to begin adding the bricks.
Given that The Fallow Season of Hugo Hunter is my favorite of Craig’s books, you would think I’d add that to my pile instead of the third installment of Edward’s journey. But there’s something about Edward Unspooled. Maybe it’s because I have a thing for epistolary novels. Maybe it’s because there are so many laugh-out-loud moments in this book too, and again you’ve probably detected a pattern in addition to the journalist thing. (Craig’s journalism career spanned twenty-five years, by the way.) Maybe it’s because Edward is just so lovable and endearing, and it’s a book about a husband and wife who are so well-matched and love each other dearly. And if I’m on this deserted island without my husband, then dammit, I want this book.
The Craft of Revision, 1st edition (Donald Murray)
I am eternally grateful to my friend and former mentor Mary for giving me this copy.
Here’s the ultimate irony: I think Murray revised this book too much by the fifth edition, which no longer resembles the first. The first is the best. It’s the one that changed not only the way I look at revision, but also the way I taught it. I would share excerpts of this with my students, and there was always one or two in every class who “got” it.
Murray was another from the journalism pool. (Sadly, he is no longer with us.) He wrote in a way that seems as if he didn’t pore over every word choice, incessantly reread and rewrite until he’d honed it to every word in its right place. As if it all flowed out on the first shot. I think there’s a strange kind of misconception about writing style that is seemingly simplistic. As if eloquence is the marker for what makes writing “art.” I certainly appreciate those who write beautiful sentences. But the books I keep coming back to, the ones that leave me thinking long after I’ve turned the final page, are the ones that are written in ways that are put together in the way a woodworker makes a chair. They are still beautiful (I once again recommend you read The Fallow Season of Hugo Hunter, as well as This is What I Want—there are some sentences in there that I downright envy), but they’re also, if you will pardon the metaphor, easy to sit in.
Straight Man (Richard Russo)
In the same way everyone who aspires to be a writer should read On Writing, everyone who aspires to be in academia—in particular, an English department—should read this book. The absurd politics, the affairs and innuendo, the ever-looming publish-or-perish threat…it’s all there, plus—wait for it—the humor, beginning on the very first page when Hank’s nose falls victim to a collision with a spiral notebook. Straight Man is one of those books I read cover to cover thinking, Man, I know this place. It had even prompted me to write my own academic farce, one that still sits in a drawer, because even though I love every character in it, I never quite found the story. Maybe one day it will finally come to me. It needs to be told.
In the Pleasure Groove: Love, Death, and Duran Duran (John Taylor)
Do I really need to say any more? I mean, you’ve got that fabulous Patty Palazzo-designed cover. You’ve got John Taylor when he was just a glasses-toting geek listening to records in his bedroom (weren’t we all that kid in one form or another?) You’ve got Duran Duran in its glory days and in its not-so-glory days. You’ve got sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll. And you’ve got a pretty well-written memoir.
And yes. I’ll say it. Pictures.
In many ways, I think we treasure certain books not only for their stories or their style or characters but for their memories. In the same way I am happily transported to my UMass-Dartmouth days when I read Straight Man, and I will forever remember my dearest love reading Edward Unspooled to me every night before bed, the two of us snuggled together, In the Pleasure Groove will conjure the memory of my standing before this man previously known solely from my turntable and my bedroom walls, and showing him a copy of my own book, the title of which was inspired by his band’s song. It will conjure every live show, every moment on stage, dare I say, the music between us. It will forever be a book about what’s possible.
What are your 7 Books You Can't Live Without? I want to know! Leave a comment at the bottom. (And subscribe to my mailing list, too!)
I'm an author of commercial women's fiction and a writing instructor. My claim to fame: I can say the alphabet backwards.