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40 Great Books for Every Writer’s Library

August 25, 2013

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With Labor Day fast approaching, it’s never too early to grab those early-season holiday gifts, right?

I thought I’d create a “gift list” to use when shopping for your writer friends and relatives – or yourselves.

This list is very simple: 40 Books For Every Writer’s Library. I realize it is subjective, and I may have missed one of your favorites, but it covers every angle for working on our books, articles, essays or other projects. This list is also designed to spark new ideas, or to further exploration of ideas you already have.

In the list, you will find several self-help writing books, collections of conversations with authors, memoirs, technical books, books addressing other creative genres (music and art, specifically), and works written by some of our greatest authors.

In no particular order (except for #1, #2 and #3), here is the list, with personal impressions from my experience:

51eTXTqabwL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_ 1. Writer’s Market: Every August, I eagerly run down to the bookstore and buy the new copy of this annual publication, published by Writer’s Digest. I consider it a bible for writers, not only because of its 5,000+ listings of book, story and article markets, but because of its articles. Every year, literary agents and industry experts pen fantastic, insightful articles that every serious writer should read. They provide nothing less than the keys to the kingdom of publishing, and save countless headaches, rejection slips and embarrassing moments.  If you don’t have this book (which comes with a CD that provides year-round, online contact), stop what you’re doing, find $40 somewhere, and buy it. Now.

2 & 3. On Becoming a Novelist and On Writers and Writing: by John Gardner. We start with a bang – a two-for-one. No novelist has ever conveyed the craft and writing life better; then again, he was perhaps the nation’s most refined fiction writer and teacher of fiction at the time of his death in 1982.

4. Writers Dreaming, by Naomi Epel: Conversations with noted authors on their dreams, plots or ideas that came from dreams, and how they work with their dreams. A vital read if you, like me, believe the 6 to 8 non-waking hours of the day contribute mightily to the writing process.41aP7rdkxBL._SY346_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_

5. Storycatcher: The Power of Story to Change Our Lives, by Christina Baldwin: Reading and working the prompts in this book is like drinking nectar, further flavored by your own words when they spin together perfectly. In other words, this book does magical things to one’s ability to journal, write an essay or story, and heal. Life’s Companion: Journal Writing as a Spiritual Quest is another Baldwin title worth owning.

6. Ensouling Language, by Stephen Harrod Buhner: In school, we are all taught critical thinking, and academic writing – stating facts or theories, and substantiating them through research and examples. In other words, thought-based writing. Consequently, most of us developed the habit of writing sentences and choosing verbs that emphasized thinking over feeling. In this book, Buhner takes us through our hearts and souls, encourages us to develop a vocabulary of “feeling words,” and transports us to a place where we write lyrically, soulfully, and beautifully: the type of writing that not only resonates with readers, but often changes or transforms their lives. Absorb this book, and readers will feel the heart and soul of your work as though they can rub it off the page.

7. The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White: After nearly a century, this book remains a staple of working writers and teachers. Its greatest value might be in emphasizing the need to write tight – crisp, concise, to the point.

51sS3rx58NL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_ 8. Punctuation for Writers, by Harvey Stanbrough: This book deserves a spot on every writer’s desktop alongside The Elements of Style. It presents punctuation as a timely, valuable asset to every written sentence, rather than the necessary evil we first met in grammar school. Whenever I write a book, this gem sits on my desktop. Another Stanbrough pick: Writing Realistic Dialogue & Flash Fiction. You’ll become a conversational dialogue writer, the best kind, after working with this book.

9. Zen in the Art of Writing, by Ray Bradbury: Zen connotes space, presence, serenity, succinctness. All of which you find 51JP9AJJVVL._SY300_in Bradbury’s prolific writing style. I was at a signing when science fiction’s greatest living writer toured this book 20 years ago … I’ll never forget his encouraging comments to me. This book remain a treasure.

10. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard: In my opinion, one of the best memoirs ever written. I’ve read it 10 times, and counting. This masterpiece brings together nature, voice, observation, listening, creating, inner feelings, outer environment, hubris and hope … and every word sparkles with brilliance. What else is there? If you want more Dillard, go with Three By Annie Dillard – a collection that also includes An American Childhood, and The Writing Life.

11. A Natural History of the Senses, by Diane Ackerman: This is a tremendous book on how the physical senses play out in the natural world, and how we can attune better to our own senses … a critical aspect of deep writing. Some of the stories of how animals use their senses are breathtaking – and reminders of how much more sense-itive we can (and should) become as writers.

51lBeA6xvFL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_12. Color: A Natural History of the Palette, by Victoria Finlay: This book contains a history of primary colors, how they were mixed for artists since prehistoric times, and the fascinating stories behind the substances and creators of these colors. A great book of observation, journalism and craftsmanship. Good writers always form close alliances with color and tone; here’s a wonderful map into that journey.

13. Library: An Unquiet History, by Matthew Battles: I believe every writer should know basic library science and library history – and this book provides a wonderfully off-beat account of both. From Sumeria to your local library, the adventures of the printed word and its storage – and the wars fought over books – could not be better told.

14. The Browser’s Book of Beginnings, by Charles Panati: As writers, we should know the origins of every subject about which we write – and the etymology of the historical words we use. The incredible material can either be used in your works – or prompt little “archaeological” digs of your own. An alternate selection: The Book of Lists, by David Wallechinsky.416Y2Y9RE6L._SY346_

15. Keeping a Journal You Love, by Sheila Bender: A wonderful friend in the writing-teaching community, Sheila has dedicated the last 20 years of her life to helping writers improve their craft. She’s written several books, but this brings home the essence of what it takes to be a compelling writer: Going deep inside, taking your life experiences and world view with you, and percolating wisdom and compassion through journaling. This book erases writer’s block – fast.

16. The Best Writing on Writing, Jack Heffron, ed.: Jack is a former Writer’s Digest Books editor who occasionally teaches writing workshops. He also compiles very good anthologies. This annual release offers plenty of great pieces for writers looking for a tip or some inspiration.

17. Dimensions of a Life, ed. Jon Halpern: Written to honor great poet-essayist Gary Snyder on his 60th birthday, this collection of essays, stories and poems by more than 70 contributors focuses on aspects of Snyder’s life, work, personality, cultural influences, and more. It’s like taking 70 gemologists, peeling a diamond open, and seeing how that diamond comes together, one side at a time. Alternate selection for fans of Beat poetry and literature: Lighting the Corners, featuring the works and conversations of Michael McClure.

18. The Artful Edit: On the Practice of Editing Yourself, by Susan Bell: For most writers, the hardest part of the process comes after you finish writing the draft – editing your work. In my opinion, this is the best book on editing. It contains tips, strategies, counsel from the greatest book editors of the past century, and interviews with top-selling authors. The author’s personal touch makes self-editing very inviting … and I invite you in, because these days, books need to go to publishers very well edited.

19.  The Language of Life, by Bill Moyers: The subject of a 1995 PBS special, this book features conversations with 25 great current poets. In it, you will see how writers and poets develop voice, and read priceless insights on observation, imagery and craft.41Qag8YXNPL._SY346_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_

20. Henry Miller on Writing, by Henry Miller: This book changed my writing life; I learned to really finish my book manuscripts after reading it. One of the 20th century’s most prolific writers and artists shares his take on the art and craft of writing – and the insights and tips fall from every page like fruit trees perpetually in season.

21. The Crossing Point, by Mary Caroline Richards: Every writer, teacher, artist, artisan, poet and those concerned with the creative process would do well to own this book of essays, talks, poems and musings by one of the 20th century’s greatest purveyors of personal creativity (and part of the famed Black Mountain literary movement). My copy is hopelessly ripped, underlined and dog-eared from extensive use; I can feel my creative electrons jumping each time I open this book.

22. How To Think Like Leonardo DaVinci, by Michael Gelb: Here it is, in a single hardback book: the visual imprint of the creative mind and creative process. Its exploration of the ultimate Renaissance man brings out the creator in all of us. This book is filled with page after page of creative inspiration; I can’t last more than four pages at a time without putting it down and writing to exhaustion.

23. A Writer’s Diary, by Virginia Woolf: The beauty of this diary is that we truly see the inner triumphs and struggles of a great literary figure – but also how every minute of every day was spent writing or gathering the seeds for future works. A great look at the inner world of the perpetually working writer.

24. The Gang That Wouldn’t Write Straight, by Marc Weingarten: The story of the New Journalists – the writers to whom every current journalist, memoirist and narrative non-fiction author owes a debt of gratitude. Beginning with Norman Mailer and Truman Capote, these were the pioneers of incorporating fiction-writing and deep inner personal feelings into non-fiction work.

51CEuzp6m9L._SY346_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_25. The Faith of a Writer: Life, Craft, Art, by Joyce Carol Oates: If you could mate pure, distilled wisdom and vision with the intimacy of a deep romance, this book would be the offspring. What a treasure, by one of the greatest writers on the planet.

26. Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg: A modern classic for writers seeking the deeper, inner places from which to write, and the relationships of their feelings and perceptions to the outside world. The vignettes and essays in this book are tight, concise – and built to prompt you to write.

27. Practicing: A Musician’s Return to Music, by Glenn Kurtz: Music and writing are so closely linked, structurally and creatively, that it behooves every writer listen to music deeply, if not play or study it. But this stellar memoir is about more than music: it is about the art and hard work of practice, and how practice creates ultimate attunement with one’s instrument. In the case of writers, that means written vocabulary and voice.

28. Bird By Bird, by Anne Lamott: Anne’s deeply felt, highly observant look at the little things in life – a prime topic of both her fiction and non-fiction books – informs this collections of essays/prompts. In it, she shows how she invents verbs to suit the action of the moment – reminding us that we, too, can invent words.

29. On Writing, by Stephen King: The man who re-invented the horror genre – in both books and films – wrote this heartfelt, deeply informed book to the writer who fights, struggles, bleeds, perseveres and stops at nothing to write … then comes back for more. Ten years after it’s release, it remains the most-quoted book at writer’s conferences and MFA programs. The advice is sound, insightful and applicable, as you might expect from a man who has sold more than 350 million books.51o6c5YQTmL._SY346_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_

30. Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting, by Robert McKee:  The author put 40 years of screenwriting experience into this book, which rises far beyond the world of the screenplay into something much more universal – the art and craft of writing a compelling story by visualizing a moment and then drawing it out. This book works for all writers. Alternate selection: The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller, by John Truby.

31. On Being a Writer, Bill Strickland, ed: I kept this in the Top 30 list until the last moment. A great collection of conversations with our finest authors, who discuss voice, technique and process openly, in a way that every writer can absorb.

32. The Power of Myth, by Joseph Campbell: We need to be in contact with the mythologies that formed the archetypes we use in our writing. We also need to know the art of mythmaking as storytellers. This book, first published in conjunction with a PBS series in the late 1980s, brings myth into the present. Worthy companion: Mythology, by Edith Hamilton.

33. Telling True Stories, edited by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call: This compilation of essays and perspectives by many of the top narrative non-fiction writers and journalists (Nora Ephron, David Halberstam, Tom Wolfe, Susan Orlean, Malcolm Gladwell, Phillip Lopate, etc.) paints the artful marriage of story crafting and real-life events or circumstances. It discusses techniques, strategies, and most of all, ways to create masterful stories with actual events. If you want to write essays, memoirs, biographies or any type of non-fiction book or article, buy this book and your writing will expand forever.

            34. Writing Begins with the Breath, by Laraine Herring: This new release borrows from William Carlos Williams’ philosophy of poetry, which launched the Beat poets movement. Part Buddhism, part instructional … a fine book.

            35. Dare to be a Great Writer: 329 Keys to Powerful Fiction, by Leonard Bishop: Another Writer’s Digest Book, this is one of the most thought-out breakdowns of the fiction writing technique and process.

            61hdpLlsL8L._SX260_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_36. The Writer’s Compass, by Nancy Ellen Dodd: I’m usually not a big fan of story mapping, although if you’re a formula genre writer, or creating an alternative fantasy or sci-fi world, I don’t see how you can live without mapping. However, my opinion has been changed by Pepperdine University professor and author Nancy Dodd’s detailed, rich breakdown of 7 stages that take you from story map to finished draft. This book is loaded with insight. It is an excellent companion for both new writers and those getting off to a tough start with their next idea.

37. The Life of Poetry, by Muriel Rukeyser: A beautifully rendered part-memoir, part-instructional discussion of poetry by one of the greatest writers of the mid-20th century.

            38. Journal of a Solitude, by May Sarton: As those who have been in my workshops know, I am BIG on journaling. This wonderful book is best read by a fire, with a cup of coffee or tea, quiet music … and a journal alongside. Because you will be sparked by the writings of the ever-wise May Sarton.

39. The Art of the Personal Essay, Philip Lopate, ed.: This should be a staple in every aspiring and practicing essay writer’s home library – from ages 10 to 100. The variety of essays, and informative lead-ins, make this one of the best edited and selected writing anthologies ever.

40. The Best Writing on Writing, Jack Heffron, ed.: Jack is a former Writer’s Digest Books editor who occasionally teaches writing workshops. He also compiles very good anthologies. This annual release offers plenty of great pieces for writers looking for a tip or some inspiration.

And finally, one of my own:

            The Write Time: 366 Exercises to Fulfill Your Writing Life, by Robert Yehling: It’s hard for me to include myself in any list, but I’m sharing the vibe I’ve received from readers and reviewers. The exercises in this book are both stand-alone and mini-series pieces that cover every genre and leave plenty of opportunity for personal interpretation. I will say that it is perhaps the most diverse book of writing exercises and challenges in the market.

All of these books are available on Most can be found in chain and independent bookstores, or at writer’s conferences and book fairs.

Start your shopping season now. You will definitely make the writer you know (or are) very happy with any of these selections.

  1. Definitely saving this post as a resource. Thank you!

  2. Hope (yes that hope) permalink

    You forgot Revising Prose by richard lanham. Excellent.

    • Thanks for noting this book and writing in. That’s the tough part of limiting a list to 40 books — am going to miss a few that have been invaluable to others. “Revising Prose” is excellent, and a worthy book for any such list.

  3. Reblogged this on Patriciacolewilliams's Blog and commented:
    This is a great idea for books and for a nice gift idea list. You’ll agree with some books, perhaps not all. But it makes for interesting reading!

  4. That is a good tip particularly to those fresh
    to the blogosphere. Brief but very accurate info… Many thanks ffor sharing this one.
    A must read post!

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