The Journalist and the Murderer, Janet Malcolm
This is perhaps her most important book, but any Janet Malcolm will do. You read Malcolm because her nonfiction is a crash course in writing gripping literary journalism — and a meta-commentary on the larger issues surrounding journalism as a profession. Even if this isn’t the kind of writing you want to do, Malcolm’s attention to detail is something we should all emulate.
To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf
Books that challenge you are great exercises for your brain. Woolf’s difficult 1927 novel is a demanding reading experience, but a slow examination of it pays off in dividends.
Go Tell It on the Mountain, James Baldwin
You get beauty and you get balance when you read Baldwin. He was a writer who could take family, race, and religion, toss them all together, and come out with something perfect. Even if you’ve already read this one, a proper reread will unveil new things.
The Collected Stories, Grace Paley
Yes, we love Lorrie Moore and George Saunders, but Grace Paley is the writer to start with when it comes to American short stories that come together perfectly in a few pages. Forget Raymond Carver; this is where you go to learn about the art of short fiction.
Portrait Inside My Head, Phillip Lopate
This collection of personal essays is just Lopate’s latest, and that’s why we picked it — because he can write about anything and make it into gold. It’s a pretty respectable skill.
Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov
Read all of Nabokov to witness literary perfection, but read Pale Fire first (or maybe second) because it’s a beautiful example of what could be classified as experimental fiction.
The White Album, Joan Didion
Listen, we all know about Didion, and we all can quote selections from Slouching Towards Bethlehem, but since you know that one so well, it’s time to move on to Joan at her fiercest. This collection will have you wondering how she did it, and probably trying to imitate her, too.
The Beautiful Struggle, Ta-Nehisi Coates
Pretty much everything Ta-Nehisi Coates writes will leave you saying, “Damn…” With The Beautiful Struggle, he takes his story and teaches us all a lesson in how to do it. Whether it’s a short personal essay or your own memoir, The Beautiful Struggle is a shining example of how to do it.
Working, Studs Terkel
You can ask people questions and call it an interview, but are you really getting their story? Are you giving the reader something of value? That’s what Studs Terkel did, and he turned the stories of everyday people into some of the most riveting stuff published in America in the last century.
A Bolt From the Blue and Other Essays, Mary McCarthy
Another one you should just dive into. A critic who wasn’t afraid to tell us how she really felt — in the clearest and most cutting prose possible — McCarthy will teach you the art of not fucking around.
How Fiction Works, James Wood
If anybody else used this title for a book, they’d be laughed out of town. Yet if there’s any one person who actually does understand how fiction works, this New Yorker book critic is probably that person.
Miami and the Siege of Chicago, Norman Mailer
You can say a lot about Mailer, the person and the writer (and plenty has been said, so maybe hold back for the time being), but sometimes the whole writing-from-the-gut approach that he was so fond of actually worked out quite nicely. His reporting of the Republican and Democratic conventions of 1968 is one of his finest examples of writing the hell out of a big moment in history.
The Rest Is Noise, Alex Ross
Even if you don’t like what most people would (sometimes incorrectly) define as classical music, Ross make it all very interesting here. This account of how some of the great composers of the 20th century lived, worked, and sometimes caused riots finds Ross showcasing how deep research, a love for the subject, and a knack for storytelling is way better than a dull history lesson.
Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson
Simply put: If you want lessons on how to write a perfect novel, Marilynne Robinson will gladly teach you. The cost is picking up this book. Hyperbole? Maybe. But see if you can do better.
Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, Lawrence Wright
Weirdly enough, the Pulitzer Prize winner’s in-depth look at Scientology is sort of the dark horse on here — a masterful work of journalism, of the kind you likely need years of experience and a good staff writing job to be able to take on. But it’s also a lesson in research, research, and more research. Because if you’re a New Yorker writer writing about the Church of Scientology, you best believe your facts are being checked.
Varieties of Disturbance, Lydia Davis
Through her often very short stories, Lydia Davis teaches us how not to be afraid to do something different. She also teaches us that if you’re going to try something different, you had better be really great at it.
The Dead Father, Donald Barthelme
You don’t read Barthelme because you’re looking for a plot that will suck you in; you read Barthelme because writers are still trying to copy his strange and wonderful sentences. Some will tell you to go with his short stories first, but we say take a chance with his best novel.
Collected Poems: 1948-1984, Derek Walcott
Want to see all the beautiful things that can be done with the English language? Well, there are few living poets who can show you the type of things Walcott shows you.
Blood and Guts in High School, Kathy Acker
Kathy Acker may have been one of the last truly great writers whose work could be considered “experimental.” Reading any Acker, especially her most well-known book, it becomes clear how deadly serious she was about her craft, even as she was utterly unafraid to take daring risks with it.
Out of the Vinyl Deeps , Ellen Willis
Go beyond her music criticism, but start here if you want to see how Ellen Willis put all other music critics to shame by balancing social commentary and rock ‘n’ roll smarts in her work. It’s a lesson many of today’s music writers could stand to learn, but Willis’ work is also helpful for any writer looking to balance arts criticism with big ideas.
Austerlitz, W. G. Sebald
Sometimes you have to let history help you write your fiction; that’s one of the many things you take away from reading Sebald.
Kill All Your Darlings, Luc Sante
We love Geoff Dyer and John Jeremiah Sullivan, but Sante’s ability to spin deep, profound ideas out of subjects like photography, American music, and art is unparalleled.
The Chairs Are Where People Go, Misha Glouberman and Sheila Heti
Sometimes your random thoughts and personal philosophies can make for a really engaging and occasionally weird read. In the case of this book, it really worked out.
Critical Mass, James Wolcott
One of our finest critics, Wolcott has shown us over the years that cultural curiosity can be a writer’s best friend. This collection, which compiles everything from movie reviews to a piece on Patti Smith for the Village Voice in 1975, is a lesson in that.
The Fact of a Doorframe: Poems 1950-2001, Adrienne Rich
You can learn a lot about the world by reading Rich’s poetry. She was one of those people who got a lot of things right, and knew how to properly distill it into her work. That’s why reading her should be mandatory.