A 2013 Reader’s Guide for Writers

In his delightful book My Reading Life, Pat Conroy explains with velvet prose how good reading undergirds good writing. His well-supported argument is that effective writers are first avid readers. Conroy’s personal goal of consuming two-hundred pages a day seems straight from Mount Olympus, and accomplishing that daily feat is an act of almost mythologic proportions. Near the end of his trekker’s guide for writers, though, he explains that, “reading is the most rewarding form of exile and the necessary discipline for a novelist who burns with the ambition to get better.”

I find myself strolling through the meadows at the foot of this mountain, burning to get better but reading less frequently than I wish. Still, with the help of a monthly book club and the periodic recommendations of friends, I have completed twenty-nine books this past year. Some are high-carb fuel for the road, inspiring me to be a better writer. Others are the sugar-sweetened equivalent of an afternoon snack, quickly consumed but lacking in sustenance. One wasn’t even worth a second bite. But that’s how reading is for me, trail mix for the writing road that feeds my next writing project. Below is a sample from my 2013 menu, categorized not by what I enjoyed but what I learned.

The Most Fitting End to a Story: The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

On an uncommonly cold day this fall, best described in Alabama as “football weather,” I stumbled across Salinger’s book in the local library. Impulsively checking it out and then reading it again for the first time since high school, I soon recalled why this sixty-year-old book still speaks to readers today. Of all the bold characters I read about this year, few had the naked honesty of Holden Caulfield. For me, Salinger found the perfect way to end the tale of this audacious character when we learn that throughout the book, Holden was retelling his story from the comfort of a mental ward.

The Most Consistent Point of View: The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

I’m sure I’m near the back of the line of those waiting to praise this National Book Award winning novel, but what I learned most from it was the consistency of creating a witty character with a rich backstory. McBride’s protagonist, Onion, is as fresh at the end of the novel as he is with his first introduction, and the humor remains.

The Characters Most Likely to Move into the Basement of My Mind and Never Leave: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Love in a cancer kids support group comes to life through the first-person perspective of Hazel Grace Lancaster, a sixteen-year-old with metastatic thyroid cancer and an oxygen tube in her nose. It seems difficult for most writers to present someone with the yin-yang of haunting honesty and self-effacing humor, but Green builds her character through the shenanigans of her boyfriend, Augustus Waters. After reading it, the novel left me walking around for days with their conversations continuing like music in my head.

The Most Sphincter-TIghtening Tension: Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

Not since The Hot Zone have I read a non-fiction work that rivals any novel in bringing the triple-threat of character, plot, and pacing. The author retells the true story of World War Two bombardier, Louis Zamperini, in a way worthy of a college history class. She simultaneously does it with the page-turning intensity of The Hunger Games, which underscores the fundamental truth that good writing (and a good story) transcend genres.

The Most Masterfully Believable Yet Improbable Plot: 11/22/63 by Stephen King

King takes the time to build a strong, first-person foundation for the protagonist and then scatters believable clues in the story. When Jake Epping finally steps through the restaurant pantry and into the past, the reader absolutely—and willingly—goes with him.

The Most Lyrical Use of Language with the Most Compelling Supporting Cast: The Goldfinch by Donna Tart

When young Theo Decker has his life upended with the death of his mother, Tart explains his grief as “the place where words didn’t work.” Lyrical nuggets of precise language stud the seven-hundred page novel, a tour-de-force of writing talent that displays repeated examples of “I-wish-I-had-written-that” phrases. She also creates in Theo’s side-kick, Boris, a scrawny Eastern European druggie who embraces bad decisions and personal loyalty with such wild abandon that it is hard not to like him.

The Most Enjoyable Time Spent with a Book: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Like a favorite food in the buffet line, I have returned to this novel often. When my ten-year-old drew Harper Lee’s name as the famous Alabamian to research and present, I thought the literary gods had winked at me. We sat on the sofa and read it together, pausing to explain the language of the time, to understand the tragedy of Scout’s mother, and to learn what Atticus Finch could teach us about humility and integrity. Few authors have practiced their craft better than Harper Lee. No other book reminds me more of why I love to read, and by extension, why I love to write.