My favorite book is always the one I’m reading now. I get vested in the story, in the characters, in the voice of the writer.
The last few pages can feel like a kind of death (a sense of foreboding, a final ending), which is why I often sequentially, and sometimes obsessively, read the works of a writer I like.
Ten years ago, I read Me Talk Pretty One Day, and that year I read so much David Sedaris that I’d observe something—say, a man in a Santa suit waiting in line for a sandwich—and I’d think, “David would love this.”
So when I tried to choose my top recommendations among the books I read in 2017 that will make you a better writer in 2018 … well, it was agony.
I had to exclude more than I could include. But, eventually, I compiled a list of my top recommendations. They aren’t necessarily my all-time favorite books (although some are), but they will make you a better writer. I explain why.
Most of these are not new books. Many were published years ago; and, in at least a few cases, decades ago. And some I didn’t read for the first time in 2017, but re-read them.
The best books lend themselves to rediscovery: Over and over you can re-read what’s old … and stumble into worlds that feel brand new.
Here are 12 books that can help you be a better writer in 2018:
New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast documents the decline of her aging parents in this memoir that reads like a graphic novel. Roz isn’t the first writer to give cartoon treatment to a serious subject, but she’s one of the best. (By the way, if you’re a fan of literary graphic novels generally, Book Riot can hook you up.)
Roz’s book is painful, honest, and (often darkly) hilarious. It’s a great read even if you aren’t dealing with aging parents or grandparents—and I’m not; my parents died decades ago.
You might also like: Caring for Red tackles a similar subject. It’s written by my friend Mindy Fried, a sociologist who writes about caring for her 97-year-old father in the final year of his life, with a political backdrop (her father was an actor, writer and a labor organizer who was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee).
What writers can learn: How to write about ordinary stuff in an unordinary way (b-to-b content writers, I’m looking at you). Each of these books documents ordinary moments in ordinary lives—but with a perspective and treatment that make the stories anything but prosaic.
My friend Mitch Joel recommended Steven Pressfield’s book to me years ago, and I finally got around to reading it in 2017. I don’t know why it took me so long.
Then again, Steven’s book is about procrastination. I procrastinated reading it. That seems apt.
What writers can learn: How to get things done. Steven writes, “It’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write.” Yep.
This series of short stories by Lucia Berlin was published posthumously. I bought it on a whim in the Oslo airport only because I had 200 kroner I needed to spend. (I bought a packet of nuts, too.) It turned out to be one of the more important books I read in 2017.
It wasn’t always a pleasant read. Some of the 40-odd stories are disturbing and brutal. But Lucia’s use of language, the pacing of her prose, the unorthodoxy of the grammar and the intensity of the characters stuck with me long after I finished it. Sometimes, I’ll be driving down the road, mechanically, and suddenly I realize I’m thinking of a Lucia Berlin story.