This past year, I read thirty-five books in four different languages: English, Spanish, Italian, and French. (Yes, I might be a little obsessed with studying foreign languages.)
Some of those books I loved, others left me a little disappointed. But I learned something new from each one that helped me improve my own writing. As William Faulkner once observed,
Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write.
Today, I’m rounding up ten of my favorite reads from 2016. This is always a difficult task so I’ve decided to divide this list up into categories and choose four literary works, three writing craft books, and three books on creativity to share with you.
Read on to discover which books made it into my top ten. I hope you’ll find new books to add to your reading list!
Top 4 Literary Works
(Please note that links to the books are affiliate links. If you purchase a book through the link, I’ll make a small commission that will help me keep this blog up and running.)
1. East of Eden by John Steinbeck (1952, fiction)
After writing a blog post about John Steinbeck back in April, I wanted to read more of his work. In high school, I’d read Of Mice and Men (a thought-provoking novella), but I’d never picked up any of his other books. So this past summer I decided to tackle his sprawling 600-page novel East of Eden (often considered his masterpiece).
It completely blew me away. A retelling of the Biblical story of Cain and Abel, the intricate storyline follows the lives of the Trask and Hamilton families from the time of the American Civil War up until WWI.
Steinbeck is one of the best storytellers I’ve ever read. He wrote an incredible page turner filled with a cast of vivid characters (he even shows up as a character once or twice!) and many twists and turns. There’s murder, prostitution, gunfights, blackmail, and much more. But at the heart of the story, Steinbeck wrestles with deep philosophical questions and moral dilemmas that left me thinking about the book for months afterward.
Read this book to learn how to write a captivating story with complex and powerful themes.
2. Maus by Art Spiegelman (1991, nonfiction)
The first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer prize, Maus follows Art Spiegelman’s quest to learn more about the experiences of his parents, Polish Jews who survived Auschwitz.
On the surface, Maus is a Holocaust survivor story. But the book also examines Spiegelman’s troubled relationship with his father and his trauma in the wake of his mother’s suicide. Maus is a poignant tale that shows how the Holocaust continues to affect even the children of the survivors.
The illustrations allow Spiegelman to take the book to an allegorical level. At times, the book reminded me of stories like George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Spiegelman depicts the Jews as mice and the Nazis as cats, though he eventually shows how racial stereotypes fall apart.
Read this book to learn how to approach an important, sensitive, and oft-discussed subject in a unique way.
3. Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope (1857, fiction)
Anthony Trollope is another author whose work I became interested in after writing a blog post about him. Several friends that I’d met on Instagram had just started a Trollope book club so I joined in and read The Warden and Barchester Towers, the first two books in his Barsetshire Chronicles.
I recommend reading them together, but Barchester Towers is the stronger novel and can be read on its own. The books are satires of Victorian society and the power struggle in the Anglican church.
Trollope is one of the wittiest authors I’ve ever read, and what I really loved was his unique narrative style. This past year, I read a lot of writing craft books that explained in detail all the rules you must follow when structuring a story. But Trollope often throws those rules right out the window. His narrator is constantly interrupting the action to tell you which characters you should root for or to spoil an upcoming plot twist. It’s highly entertaining.
I also recommend checking out the BBC’s 1952 television adaptation that stars Alan Rickman.
Read this book to learn how to write effective social satire and reinvent storytelling conventions.
4. Christ Stopped at Eboli by Carlo Levi (1945, nonfiction)
I came across Carlo Levi’s memoir when looking for books to read to practice my Italian. It was slightly above my reading level, but I’m glad I decided to attempt it.
In 1935, Benito Mussolini’s Fascist government banished Levi to internal exile in a remote, poverty-stricken village in southern Italy. The title of the book refers to the villagers’ belief that the northern Italians, who controlled the government, did not see them as Christians but as subhuman and inferior citizens.
Through a series of beautifully written anecdotes, Levi recounts the year he spent in exile and presents a powerful critique of fascism and the detrimental effects of an out-of-control bureaucracy. The plot moves slowly at times, but overall I found the book to be a fascinating read.
Read this book to learn how writers can use their words to bring attention to injustice and the sufferings of others.
I also enjoy reading through the Bible each year. If you’re interested in doing the same, I recommend checking out the free reading plans at biblegateway.com. I like that they offer many different translations so I can practice reading in the foreign languages I’m studying.
Top 3 Writing Craft Books
1. The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know by Shawn Coyne (2015)
I heard Shawn Coyne speak at a writing conference this past year, and he gave everyone in the audience a copy of his book, The Story Grid. To be honest, I actually haven’t finished it yet. I’ve been reading through it slowly because this book is packed with wonderful advice.
An editor with over twenty-five years of experience, Coyne breaks down all the necessary ingredients for telling effective stories. He shares his “story grid” method: an outline that you can use to plot your novels, craft riveting scenes, and pinpoint exactly why your story isn’t working.
You can learn more about Coyne’s story grid method at his website Storygrid.com. Make sure to check out the podcast too. It’s one of my favorites!
Read this book to learn how to analyze story structure and plot a successful novel.
2. Creating Short Fiction by Damon Knight (1997)
While The Story Grid is an excellent book to read to learn how to strengthen your plots, Damon Knight’s Creating Short Fiction gets into the nitty-gritty of developing characters, writing effective dialogue, proper pacing, and much more.
A Hugo Award-winning sci-fi author, Knight shares advice that can be used by short story writers and novelists alike. There are also lots of great exercises to put that advice into practice.
Read this book to learn more about the mechanics of fiction writing (pacing, dialogue, point of view, and much more).
3. The Memoir Project by Marion Roach Smith (2011)
I picked up a copy of The Memoir Project after hearing Marion Roach Smith speak at a writing conference. She is a powerful storyteller, and I wanted to learn how to tell stories like she did.
Don’t let the title of the book fool you. This book isn’t just for memoirists.
Whether you’re a blogger or any other kind of nonfiction writer, you can use the techniques of memoirists to tell compelling stories and connect with your readers on a deeper level. Find my full review of the book here.
Read this book to learn how to add another dimension to your writing by turning your life experiences into compelling stories.
Top 3 Books on Creativity
1. Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury
If you’re feeling discouraged as a writer, get a copy of this book. It’s a collection of inspirational essays by Ray Bradbury all about how to keep your passion for writing alive.
I especially enjoyed the essay “On How to Keep and Feed a Muse”. And as a fan of Bradbury’s work (though I did skip the poetry at the end of the book), I found it fascinating to get a peek into his writing process.
Read this book when you’re feeling discouraged and need to reawaken your joy for writing.
2. Steal Like an Artist and Show Your Work by Austin Kleon
Technically, these are two different books, but they are both short, quick reads and complement each other. I read them in about a day or two.
If you’re already a skilled writer with experience sharing your work on the Internet, you probably won’t find any new info here. But if you are just starting out on your creative journey, these books are encouraging and outline the next steps you should take.
Show Your Work is particularly helpful with tips on how to start building an audience. And the illustrations make the books fun to read.
Read these books if you’re just starting out on your creative journey and looking for inspiration and direction.
3. The Art of Work by Jeff Goins
When I read this book last year, I didn’t know that Jeff Goins was going to end up becoming a friend and blogging mentor. Since reading the book, I’ve taken his online course and learned a lot from him about how to build an audience for my writing.
The Art of Work is an inspiring read that examines what it means to have a “calling”. Jeff presents the concept of a “portfolio life”: how your calling usually isn’t one job but rather a portfolio of work that you create over the years and that can consist of many different activities and experiences.
Read this book if you are at a crossroads in your life and looking for guidance on how to follow your creative calling.
Come follow me on Instagram to read more of my book reviews and see what books I’m reading this year.
Have you read any of these books? What were your favorite books read in 2016? Let me know in the comments, and please share this post with a friend if you found it helpful.