12 Essential Books for Writers That Aren’t About Writing
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”
When Stephen King wrote that often quoted line in his masterful writing guide, On Writing, he was, for the most part, talking about fiction. And rightly so.
But, the same goes for non-fiction. I’m not talking about books on writing, though they’re also important tools on a writer’s shelf.
By reading non-fiction, we’re offered a chance to learn about how the world works, how people work, how the universe works. In writing fiction, we are, after all, creating new worlds, new people, mirroring our existing worlds – of course, we need to know how it all fits together!
This list is comprised of 12 books that teach us exactly that.
One of the books listed here is fiction, the rest are non-fiction (or non-fiction companions to fiction).
It’s divided into three major areas of study:
1. Religion, Philosophy and Classic Story
3. Social Science and Science
These three areas are the gamut of life, the universe and everything – exactly what a fiction writer should strive to learn.
Not one of these books is a book specifically about writing, but they should be required reading for anyone who wants to get serious about writing fiction.
12 Essential Books for Writers That Aren’t About Writing
Religion, Philosophy and Classic Story
In my first university lecture, my literature professor stood up and told us there were two avenues of education a literature scholar need to know – the first was classical mythology. At the time, I was also studying history and mythology, so Grimal’s Dictionary of Classical Mythology was already required text. I graduated from that degree some 13 years ago, and Grimal’s Dictionary is still a well-thumbed resource on my shelf.
Why is it important for a literary scholar (which all writers are) to be up on their Greek and Roman tales?
These are some of the oldest stories around. They cover every aspect of the human condition and do so against the backdrop of weird and wonderful, wild places.
Western literature is soaked in reference and metaphors to Classical legend so, to understand those, and write your own, we need to know the source tales.
Why list a dictionary instead of something like Metamorphoses or The Illiad?
Because this is the gateway. Grimal’s is a comprehensive listing of characters and stories and for every entry, it lists the primary text where you’ll be able to find those original stories. Sure, checking this stuff on Wikipedia works in a pinch, but nothing can compare to the mastery and depth of Grimal’s classic work on Classic works.
In that lecture I talked about above, the second recommendation was The Bible. “You don’t have to believe it, you just have to know it,” the professor said.
For all of the reasons above for why classical mythology is important knowledge for the literary scholar, the same goes for Christian mythology (and let’s not forget that Classical mythology used to be a religion).
I am not Christian, but I was raised Catholic and have 11 years of Catholic education behind me. I’m forever grateful for that as it’s given me an extensive knowledge of biblical texts (and I also studied a bit of historical theology in university too).
So much literature from all over the world is steeped in Christian traditions. Understanding those traditions gives us a richer understanding of that literature, an understanding we can also take into our own writing.
Further, it’s not just the stories that are important. Millions of people the world over believe The Bible to be the literal truth and that belief shapes their life on every level.
A study of religious text is a study of human nature. As writers, we strive to be experts in human nature.
Religious texts don’t begin or end with the Christian Bible.
Familiarising yourself with the Qur’an (or Koran), the central text of Islam, is not only a study of one of the most widespread religions in the world, it’s an insight into one of the largest populations of believers in the world.
Again, studying religion is studying human nature.
Considering the social, political and theological climate of the world we’re currently living in, a deeper understanding of all cultures and perspectives is only a step towards a better world. And better writing.
This is only true work of fiction on this list, and really, when it comes to fiction and universal relevance, it doesn’t get much more essential than William Shakespeare.
Most of us who’ve gone through a formal education will have encountered a Shakespeare play or ten. Even if we haven’t formally studied them, Shakespeare is just one of those things that seep into popular consciousness, so most people know at least a few characters, stories or even quotes.
So, if we all pretty much know these stories already, why is this such an important read for writers?
Besides the obvious familiarising with the tales themselves, reading Shakespeare (and seeing it performed live or at least read aloud) is a masterclass in poetic expression.
The Bard fits words together like no other before or since, and even made up a whole bunch of words along the way.
I love this fact, as it reminds me that language and its use are fluid and in many ways subjective. So fly fast and free with words and grammar and create your own style that who knows, people might still be talking about five hundred years later.
The Republic is essentially a book of ideas on the perfect society.
Sure, a lot of Plato’s arguments can be easily refuted, but a lot of these ideas have formed a central pillar of modern thought the way we understand the world and our place within it.
Just like studying religion, studying ancient philosophy is a study of human nature and it’s fascinating to see some of these ideas on the nature of human condition still relevant 2000 years on.
Far from being a dry tome, The Republic is quite easy to consume, reading like a conversation between two friends in a pub… perhaps after a few too many.
No excuse not to have this one – it’s FREE!
So now we turn from studies of human nature inferred from other kinds of writing, into actual studies of human nature.
Together with Freud, Jung pioneered psychology as a scientific study, and this book of essays covers some of his most fundamental and revolutionary ideas.
From dream analysis to the study of human development and the condition of “archaic man”, this volume also covers Jung’s seminal ideas on personality types as well as places where he disagrees with his former mentor, Freud.
Many of Jung’s ideas are often regarded now as mystical psycho-babble, but that doesn’t detract from their importance in founding a field that most of the world takes for granted now.
Read this to learn about the development of thought about thought in the world around us, and also as a way to add some layers of psychological depth to your characters.
If you’re going to read Jung, you might also take a look at the other side of the psychoanalytical coin.
If there’s one thing writers need to know about, whether you’re writing hard sci-fi or the most intricate and abstract of literary fiction, it’s the human mind and behaviour.
Characters make stories, and what better way to get into your character’s heads than to subject them to a bit of psychoanalysis.
And who better to learn about psychoanalysis from than the man who pretty much started it, whose ideas permeate modern culture possible more than any other.
The Freud Reader is an accessible book, covering all of Freud’s major ideas and writings. You’ll find notions on psycho-sexual development, theories of the evolution of human consciousness, as well as ideas on art, literature, culture and politics.
Social Science and Science
Written during the time of massive social upheaval (with the American and French Revolutions happening), A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was the first study of what we now think of as feminism. Wollstoncraft compares the situation of women to that of slaves: property of men, desired to be obedient, presentable and nothing more. Women, Wollstonecraft argued, should have equal opportunity to education, they should be defined by themselves, their own pursuits, not those of their partners.
Cool side note: Mary Wollstonecraft is Mary Shelley’s (as in Frankenstein) mother.
If you’ve ever wanted to know more about how the civilised world was put together from the beginning, this is the book.
In this book, we get a fascinating picture of how geography and the environment kick started early civilisations, leading to the development of agriculture, religion, class systems, scientific study and warfare.
This book is widely celebrated for its non-racial examination of the development of the modern world.
If you’re into world building, it’s a must read.
From the big bang to the present day, this popular guide to science is a study of the evolution of scientific discovery, thought and the impact that makes on our day to day life and beyond.
Why do writers need to know this stuff?
Because like so many of these books, this is our story.
Bryson has written our story, the story of human inquisitiveness and problem solving and exploration. How could that not benefit your story?
For sci-fi writers, this should be especially required for obvious reasons.
Plus, it’s a great, often quite funny read.
Most of us, right now, have some concept of environmentalism. We’re aware of the negative impact human society has on the planet – it’s just common knowledge.
This is the book that effectively brought environmentalism to the world’s attention. Originally published as a series in The New Yorker (in 1962), Silent Spring attacked indiscriminate pesticide use in America and showed the world exactly what these chemicals were doing to the land, the ecosystems and even human health.
It was an incredibly controversial book (most of that controversy coming from the chemical companies) but ultimately, its message was heard and the environmental movement was born.
What does this have to do with writers? This book is social change, and fiction is all about writing change.
Cosmos is one of the most popular and influential science books of all time.
It examines the birth of the universe from the start of matter, the development of life, the human mind, ancient hieroglyphics, the death of the sun—this really is the life, universe and everything.
This book isn’t just for astro-nerds or science fiction writers. This book has been cited in the US Congress; it has underlined human space exploration; the book itself, as well as the topics it seeks to explore, has been instrumental in forming human thought.
This list is compiled through my own experiences and reading tastes.
There are going to be influential and mind-blowing texts that I’ve left off this list, and I want to know about them all!
Tell me about your favourite books in the comments. The books that, while aren’t especially about writing, have helped you become a better fiction writer.
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