Read to write
In my Academic Writing class, my students often ask what they can/should do to improve their writing aside from learning grammar and stylistic conventions in English. Aside from referring them to the various style guides around, my answer never waivers: ‘Read. Read as much as you can from writers who write well and writers you admire and enjoy.’ The clever sods typically follow-up my response with a question that inevitably stumps me: ‘Who should we read? What books do you recommend?’
So many amazing writers , both contemporary and historical, provide excellent examples of clear, clean and crisp writing it’s a challenge to come up with a list of any kind. Given that so many others have created their own lists of ‘must-reads’, it feels weird providing my own answer this question let alone that anyone is genuinely interested in my response. But, as their guide in all matters related to Academic Writing, I have thought about this quite a lot since returning to the classroom. At the very least, here’s hoping I’ve added to their holiday reading list and possibly provided them with a few gems previously unknown to them.
Given how often I get this question, I decided to put together a list (and link) that I can refer them to.
So, who should my students read?
Typically, when I’m asked I immediately respond with John Irving. To me, anything written by John Irving is a) brilliant; b) weird and slightly surreal; and, most importantly, c) exceptionally well-written. I tell my students to read anything he’s written (because I love him), although my favourites consist of The Cider House Rules and A Prayer for Owen Meany. I’ve lost count how many times I’ve read each of these books over the years. I love them each time. His characters are always tragically and bizarrely flawed. But, it’s the writing that astounds me anew every time. Mr Irving’s use of language and style combined keep me reading him, even when the stories fell well short of my hopes. In short, I love his writing—stories and characters aside.
In terms of other writers who provide excellent examples of style and language, here’s my full list (I supplement my own list with recommendations from friends gathered in Facebooklandiastan below). This inventory is in no particular order.
- John Irving: A Prayer for Owen Meany and The Cider House Rules, but anything really.
- A S Byatt: Possession.
- Haruki Murakami: Anything goes. Despite being translated into English, because Mr Murakami knows English so well, I suspect he plays a significant role in the translations of his books and short stories into English. He’s a masterful story-teller, and has a brilliant translator.
- Alice Walker: The Temple of My Familiar.
- Vikram Seth: An Equal Music is perhaps one of the most beautifully written books I’ve ever read. This book moves me to tears, quickly advancing to uncontrollable sobbing during several passages. Absolutely incredible writing and an exceptionally example of carefully placed phrases, words and punctuation.
- Ernest Hemingway: For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man & The Sea are my favourites. But, just about anything Papa ever wrote is worthy of reading and demonstrates simple eloquence in all its brilliance.
- Maya Angelo: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
- Norman Rush: Mating — another incredibly beautifully crafted piece of writing which earned Mr Rush the National Book Award.
- Ian McEwan: Atonement.
- David Sedaris: Just about anything ever written as well.
- Edward Abbey: Dessert Solitaire and The Monkey Wrench Gang.
- Toni Morrison: Beloved.
- Alice Munro: Just about anything she wrote.
- Paul Farmer: As my discipline-specific idol, I love his entire body of works. But, he’s also an exceptional writer, academic or otherwise. AIDS and Accusation was one of the most important works of his which still resonates with me roughly 20 years after I first read it.
Now, the recommendations from others. Friends from all walks of life provided the following list. I’ve placed an * next to those I fully agree with and neglected to include in my list. If you have additional writers or titles that you think belong here, please share them!
- Charles Dickens for his beautiful eloquence. (Interestingly, John Irving loves Dickens; Dickens is not a favourite of mine).
- Kurt Vonnegut*: I haven’t read any Vonnegut since high school, but I love him still.
- Stephen King: Despite borrowing from his own book on writing for my class, specifically his insistence on the active voice, I don’t find his writing that compelling. But, it is incredibly sound technically, and, undoubtedly the man has a wicked imagination.
- Ursula la Guin
- Richard Dawkins* ‘makes science easy to read without trivialising it’, commented one friend. I fully agree. I haven’t read much of him since I left graduate school. He’s incredibly eloquent as a speaker and writer both, and bloody brilliant.
- Vladimir Nabokov
- Anne Rice for her prose. Again, not one of my favourite writers, but that’s mostly because I’m admittedly a snob.
- Primo Levi, an Auschwitz survivor and chemist. I’ve not read anything by him, but will do.
- Flannery O’Connor
- George Orwell*
- David Lodge: Changing Places, Small World and Nice Work.
- Julian Barnes* — I can’t remember which book it was that I read first. But, I love Julian Barnes. Amazing writing.
- Jane Austen: just about everything.
- PG Wodehouse
- Neil Gaiman
- Isaac Asimov
- TC Boyle*: I’ve read both Drop City and A Friend of the Earth and loved both.
- P J O’Rourke
- Barbara Trapido
- Christopher Hitchens*
- Mark Twain: Rather embarrassing that I neglected to include him in my list, given that I adore him and grew up not far from Hannibal, Missouri.
- Henry Miller
- James Joyce: Dubliners
- Christopher Brookmyre
- Arundati Roy*
- Salman Rushdie*
- Marmon Silko
- Michael Chabon
- Margaret Atwood*
- Donna Tartt: The Secret History seems to be a favourite amongst others.
- Hunter S Thompson*
- Douglas Adams*
- Terry Pratchett: According to one friend, you should start with Guards! Guards! and move onward through his catalogue.
- Spider Robinson
- David McCullough
- Gina Berriault
- Joy Williams
- Richard Yates
- John Cheever
- Virginia Woolf*: A Room of One’s Own
- Oscar Wilde
- Bertrand Russell*
- Harold Pinter
- J M Barrie
- Alan Bennett
- Jean Paul Sartre
- Albert Camus
- Conan Doyle
- Russell Brand
- Truman Capote*: In Cold Blood. What an absolutely amazing piece of writing.
- Richard Feynman: QED and Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman were both recommended.
- Gloria Naylor
- Gabriel Garcia Marquez
- James Lee Burke
- Marilynn Robinson
- Sherman Alexie
- Nicholas Kristof
- David Brooks