Best Books on Writing

Deanna Fei, author of A Thread of Sky, recently wrote an article for Huffington Post titled “Seven Books on Writing for Every Writer.” I think all writers have favorites. Mine is on Fei’s list: Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, which I love for being so practical and unpretentious. And funny.

The other books on the list are:

The Writing Life by Annie Dillard

Dreaming by the Book by Elaine Scarry

The Art of Fiction by John Gardner

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

Story by Robert McKee

Mysteries and Manners by Flannery O’Connor

Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke

I also like William K. Zinsser’s On Writing Well, which is actually about writing nonfiction; and Betsy Lerner’s The Forest for the Trees.

What books on writing have you enjoyed and why would you recommend them? Also, what writing books do you think are over-rated?

Adventures in Reading: The Poisoner’s Handbook

I just had a thoroughly enjoyable reading experience. I stayed up all night to read The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum, a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer. I loved the book, but what made it even better was what I was able to find on the Internet about both the book and the author.

One thing I found was an interview with the author on Here’s an excerpt:

Steve: So the book is obviously all about poison and that makes it all about chemistry; it’s really a chemistry book in disguise.

Blum: It is. It’s called The Poisoner’s Handbook, but in the most subversive way, it’s about something that is near and dear to my heart, which is that I think chemistry is both beautiful and sinister.

You can listen to a podcast of the interview (and/or read the transcript) by going here.

I also found a blog called The Write Note by the author, where she writes more about poisons as well as her writing experiences. On it, she is extremely generous with her comments and comes across as friendly and accessible. She now has a blog called Speakeasy Science and a web site where you can listen to another podcast from NPR’s Science Friday as well as more information about Ms. Blum herself.

It’s not often that you can enter into the world of an author of a great book you’ve just read. I wish there were more experiences like that out there.


I just ran across a thought-provoking post on Bookpuddle about not finishing books. It’s called “What’s Your Abandonment Rate?” and it contains many jewels about the relationship between reader and books, like, “Regarding consummation, how many boring and uninteresting pages or chapters will you endure before you annul your vows and open the covers of another?”

The avid reader can relate to the concept of taking a vow every time you open a new book. That’s why it’s so hard to give up on it: you feel like you’re asking for a divorce–and you’re the one who is at fault. I know that I do. I don’t give up on a lot of books. But when I do, I agonize over my decision. I generally will hold onto the book as long as the library allows me to. (I rarely buy books: I can’t afford to and haven’t the room for them if I could. I will often buy a book after reading it from the library if I just have to have it.) And if I haven’t finished it by then, I let it go. There are so many books in the world, I rationalize, I just can’t afford to waste time on a book that I’m not enjoying. But still I feel guilty.

I do three kinds of reading: books that are good for me (Literature with a capital ‘L’), “junk” books, and books that give me information. I always have to have a junk book on hand for quick reading–I can go through two or three while I’m perusing one non-fiction or literary book. My junk books of choice are mysteries and thrillers. Sometimes horror or science fiction. I don’t care for chick lit or romances, although I’ve read them from time to time.

I’m terrible about reading Literature. I tend to rebel against authority and if someone tells me that reading a certain book is mandatory if I want to be well-read, I instantly take a dislike to it. In all fairness to myself, however, the literary novels I do read rarely satisfy me. They tend to be about nothing, in my humble opinion, and therefore make for slow reading. I’m an extremely fast reader, but only because I skim like mad, and it’s hard to get anything out of a literary work if you skim it. Basically, I’m just impatient.

One of my resolutions for this year is to read more meaningfully. That means, I guess, that I’ll give Literature a fairer shake than I have in the past. I’ve been looking at book lists for suggestions and tuning in at Good Reads and Library Thing. I’ve also found a couple of really good book blogs besides Bookpuddle: So Many Books and Semicolon.

The books I read for information depend on what I’m delving into at the time. I periodically gather up several writing books, I’ve gotten books on motherhood, feminism, biographies and memoirs, how the brain works, travel, spirituality and religion–and the list goes on and on. I’m sure my librarian thinks I’m schizo, my reading list is so eclectic.

I spent four months in Germany a few years ago and was appalled to learn that their libraries are not free. You have to pay a fee for so many books, sort of like a subscription. Since I regularly have 50 books out of the library at a time, I’d be broke in no time. Or terribly frustrated. I have to have a lot of books around me for fear that I will run out of things I want to read. (As if.)

I know I’m not exactly an oddity–unless all bibliophiles are oddities. But I suspect I’m in the minority. Except for readers of this post: if you’re a writer, you’re probably an avid reader; the two seem to go hand in hand. What and why do you read?