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I’ve found all of these books to be helpful in some way, and I can pretty much guarantee that all of them will infuse you with a powerful burst of inspiration. For best effect, consume when you have a day off and an unlimited supply of strong Greek coffee.

  1. A guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy – William B. Irvine
  2. 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos – Dr. Jordan Peterson
  3. Man’s Search for Meaning – Victor E. Frankl
  4. Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength – Roy. F. Baumeister
  5. Superbetter – Jane McGonigal
  6. Tools of Titans – Timothy Ferris
  7. Meditations – Marcus Aurelius
  8. The Talent Code – Daniel Coyle
  9. The Road Less Travelled – M. Scott Peck
  10. The Brain that Changes Itself – Norman Doige

These are all books I’ve read since January 1st 2017 that I thought were good. I don’t have time to do extensive reviews. That said, if it ‘made the cut’ it means I thoroughly enjoyed it and would recommend it to anyone. So if you’re at a loss for what to read next…

Key: (F)=Fiction (NF)=Non Fiction (C)=Classic (OW)=On Writing (P)=Philosophy/Self Help (S)=Short Stories

Books I liked:

Wake in Fright – Kenneth Cooke (F)

Blue Mind – Wallace J. Nichols (NF)

The Little Stranger – Sarah Waters (F)

A Sense of Style – Steven Pinker (OW)

Enlightenment Now – Steven Pinker (NF)

How an Economy Grows and Why it Crashes – Peter Schiff (NF)

Moby Dick – Hermann Melville (F)

Why We Sleep – Matthew Walker

The Butchering Art – Lindsay Fitzharris (NF)

The Ritual – Adam Nevill (F)

The Labyrinth of the Spirits – Carlos Ruiz Zafon (F)

The Original Grimm’s Fairy Tales (S)

The First 5 Pages – Noah Lukeman (OW)

October Country – Ray Bradbury (S)

Anything You Want – Derek Sivers (P)

Some Will Not Sleep – Adam Nevill (S)

His Dark Materials – Phillip Pullman (F)

Interview with a Vampire – Anne Rice (F)

Win Bigly – Scott Adams (P)

Summer of Night – Dan Simmons (F)

How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Succeed – Scott Adams (P)

The Troop – Nick Cutter (F)

The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath (C)

Psycho – Robert Bloch (C)

Can’t Hurt Me – David Goggins (P)

Planet Word – J.P Davidson (NF)

The Damnation Game – Clive Barker (F)

Writing the Breakout Novel – Donald Maas (OW)

Prisoner of Heaven – Carlos Ruiz Zafon (F)

Bird Box – Josh Malerman (F)

Flow – Mihaly Csiksentmihalyi (P)

Ordinary Men – Christopher Browning (NF)

Hellbent – Gregg Hurwitz (F)

Mistborn #1 – Brandon Sanderson (F)

The Fireman – Joe Hill (F)

The Emotional Craft of Fiction – Donald Maas (OW)

The Rape of Nanking – Iris Chang (NF)

Tribe – Sebastian Junger (P)

Nowhere Man – Gregg Hurwitz (F)

Orphan X – Gregg Hurwitz (F)

Broken Monsters – Lauren Beukes (F)

The Rape of Nanking – Iris Chang (NF)

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch – Alexander Solzhenitzen (C)

Dracula – Bram Stoker (C)

Kitchen Confidential – Anthony Bourdain (NF)

Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov (C)

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood (F)

Where Nightmares Come From – (Various) (OW)

Reality is Broken – Jane McGonigal (P)

The 5 People You Meet in Heaven – Mitch Albom (F)

NOS4R2 – Joe Hill (F)

The Nightrunners – Joe Landsdale (F)

Influence – Robert Cialdini (P)

Dune – Frank Herbert (F)

Discipline Equals Freedom – Jocko Willink (P)

Writing Down the Bones – Natalie Goldberg (OW)

12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos – Jordan Peterson (P)

Musashi – Eiji Yoshikawa (F)

Writing Tools – Roy Clark (OW)

How to Stop Worrying and Live – Dale Carnegie (P)

How to Win Friends and Influence People – Dale Carnegie (P)

Junky – William S. Burroughs (F)

Midnight Sun – Ramsey Campbell (F)

Ancestor – Scott Sigler (F)

I was Blind but now I see – James Altucher (P)

How to Win Friends and Influence People (P)

The Martian – Andy Weir (F)

Panzram – Journal of Murder (NF)

Angel’s Game – Carlos Ruiz Zafon (F)

Watcher in the Shadows – Carlos Ruiz Zafon (F)

Nocturnal – Scott Sigler (F)

Madam Bovary – Gustave Flaubert (C)

Bird By Bird – Ann Lamott (OW)

Permutation City – Greg Egan (F)

The Uses of Enchantment – Bruno Bettleheim (OW)

Mrs. Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children – Ransom Riggs (F)

The View from the Cheap Seats – Neil Gaiman (OW)

The Passage – Justin Cronin (F)

The Warrior Ethos – Steven Pressfield (OW)

The Knowledge – Steven Pressfield (F)

Letters to Lucilius – Seneca (P)

Killing Rommel – Steven Pressfield (F)

Mothertongue – Bill Bryson (NF)

Wild – Cheryl Strayed (P)

Trigger Warning – Neil Gaiman (F)

Extreme Ownership – Jocko Willink (P)

A Brief Guide to William Shakespeare – Peter Ackroyd (NF)

Danse Macabre – Stephen King (NF)

Watership Down – Richard Adams (C)

If This is a Man – Primo Levi (P)

Night Music – John Connolly (F)

The Writing Life – Annie Dillard (OW)

Homo Deus – Yuval Noah Harari (NF)

Top 10 Nonfiction

  1. Outliers – Malcolm Gladwell
  2. Sapiens – Yuval Noah Harari
  3. The Demon Haunted World – Carl Sagan
  4. Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors – Carl Sagan
  5. Tribe – Sebastian Junger
  6. Freakonomics – Steven Levitt
  7. Kitchen Confidential – Anthony Bourdain
  8. Blink – Malcolm Gladwell
  9. Why We Sleep – Matthew Walker
  10. The Rape of Nanking – Iris Chang

Every single one of these books changed my writing significantly for the better, each in a different way, and I’ve read some of them several times. That’s saying something by the way, since as a rule I never read a book more than once – there are too many good ones out there.

I should probably caution you to take your time reading these, if you’re planning to go through the list. The best way to do it, I think, would be to work your way down from #1, and as you finish each book spend at least a few months practicing and applying the things you learn. Otherwise you run the risk of taking in too much information and forgetting half of it before you get a chance to internalise it.

  1. The Elements of Style – Strunk & White
  2. On Writing – Stephen King
  3. Stein On Writing – Sol Stein
  4. On Writing Well – William Zinsser
  5. The War of Art – Steven Pressfield
  6. The First 5 Pages – Noah Lukeman
  7. No One Wants To Read Your Shit – Shaun Coyne
  8. The :Emotional Craft of Fiction – Donald Maas
  9. The Hero With a Thousand Faces – Joseph Campbell
  10. Zen in the Art of Writing – Ray Bradbury

Top  100

These are my 100 favourite books. I wrote them down as they occurred to me, so the order is roughly best to worst. Your taste might not be exactly in line with mine, but I’m willing to bet that whoever you are, you’ll enjoy the hell out of most of these.

 

  1. It – Stephen King
  2. Drood – Dan Simmons
  3. Summer of Night – Dan Simmons
  4. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy – J.R.R Tolkien
  5. Harry Potter 1 – 7 – J.K. Rowling
  6. The Dark Tower series – Stephen King
  7. Coraline – Neil Gaiman
  8. Carrie – Stephen King
  9. The Terror – Dan Simmons
  10. Flashback – Dan Simmons
  11. Tommyknockers – Stephen King
  12. Needful Things – Stephen King
  13. Jack Reacher Series – Lee Child
  14. Live by Night – Dennis Lehane
  15. Shutter Island – Dennis Lehane
  16. The Damnation Game – Clive Barker
  17. The Heroes – Joe Abercrombie
  18. First Law Trilogy – Joe Abercrombie
  19. Game of Thrones series – George R.R. Martin
  20. Treasure Island – Robert Louis Stephenson
  21. The Witches – Roald Dahl
  22. Orphan X Series – Gregg Hurwitz
  23. Danny the Champion of the World – Roald Dahl
  24. The Silence of the Lambs – Robert Harris
  25. The Great God Pan – Arthur Machen
  26. The Ruins – Scott Smith
  27. Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn
  28. Gates of Fire – Steven Pressfield
  29. The Last Kingdom series – Bernard Cornwell
  30. The Things They Carried – Tim O’ Brian
  31. Let the Right One In – Joh Ajvide Lindqvist
  32. Books of Blood – Clive Barker
  33. Rum Diary – Hunter S. Thompson
  34. Carrion Comfort – Dan Simmons
  35. Requiem for a Dream – Hubert Selby Jnr.
  36. Fight Club – Chuck Palahniuk
  37. The Beach – Alex Garland
  38. Post Office – Charles Buckowski
  39. A Time to Kill – John Grisham
  40. Salem’s Lot – Stephen King
  41. Pirate Latitudes – Michael Chrichton
  42. Eaters of the Dead – Michael Chrichton
  43. A Series of Unfortunate Events 1 -13
  44. The Stand – Stephen King
  45. Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
  46. Call of the Wild – Jack London
  47. Lord of the Flies – William Golding
  48. Animal Farm – George Orwell
  49. 1984 – George Orwell
  50. The Chronicles of Narnia – C.S. Lewis
  51. The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
  52. The Old Man and the Sea – Ernest Hemingway
  53. The Big Sleep – Raymond Chandler
  54. The Hunger Games Trilogy – Suzanne Collins
  55. Perfume – Patrick Suskind
  56. Joyland – Stephen King
  57. Audition – Ryu Murakami
  58. American Gods – Neil Gaiman
  59. The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon
  60. King Solomon’s Mines – H. Rider Haggard
  61. She – H. Rider Haggard
  62. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea – Jules Verne
  63. The Life of Pi – Yann Martel
  64. Dr. No – Ian Fleming
  65. Artemis Fowl 1 – 3 – Eoin Colfer
  66. The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
  67. Siddhartha – Herman Hesse
  68. To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
  69. The Firm – John Grisham
  70. Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card
  71. The Help – Katherine Stockett
  72. Hearts in Atlantis – Stephen King
  73. The Shining – Stephen King
  74. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark – Alvin Shwartz and Stephen Gammell
  75. Pet Sematary – Stephen King
  76. The Eyes of the Dragon – Stephen King
  77. Some Will Not Sleep – Adam Nevill
  78. Shantaram – Gregory David Roberts
  79. The Troop – Nick Cutter
  80. NOS4R2 – Joe Hill
  81. The Princess Bride – William Goldman
  82. The Road – Cormac McCarthy
  83. Sirens of Titan – Kurt Vonnegut
  84. Marina – Carlos Ruiz Zafon
  85. Best Served Cold – Joe Abercrombie
  86. Red Country – Joe Abercrombie
  87. Sharpe series 1 – 24 – Bernard Cornwell
  88. The Woman – Jack Ketchum
  89. I am Legend – Richard Matheson
  90. The Thief of Always – Clive Barker
  91. The Hobbit – J.R.R Tolkien
  92. 20th Century Ghosts – Joe Hill
  93. Heart Shaped Box – Joe Hill
  94. Ghost Story – Peter Straub
  95. Rant – Chuck Palahniuk
  96. I, Robot – Isaac Asimov
  97. Minority Report – Phillip K. Dick
  98. Dune – Frank Herbert
  99. Starship Troopers – Robert A. Heinlein
  100. Something Wicked This Way Comes – Ray Bradbury

Why Read?

 

Reading, at first glance, is not something that should be natural for us. Human beings are hunter gatherers originally, social animals, explorers. We like to do things, to talk and love and play, even running for our lives or fighting gives us an adrenaline rush, something a lot of sports enthusiasts still enjoy. So what compels us, now, to sit for hours on end staring at page after page of tiny symbols on white paper?

Well, the same reason we do anything, really: emotion. Books – good ones at least – make us feel emotions, and that is absolutely the core of their appeal. The bad book is not one that is badly written, or one with an unrealistic premise, or irritating characters, though it may include one or all of these things. No, the bad book is the one which fails to make us feel.

The idea for this post came to me the other day during a conversation with a friend in which I expressed my intense annoyance for all the ‘bad writers’ out there who churn out terrible books and make millions of dollars. Why should these people, I said, who haven’t put in any real effort or time in bettering themselves or learning to write well, be successful, while hundreds of other, better authors remain unknown? But my friend only shook his head. ‘They can’t be bad writers,’ he said. ‘They’re famous.’

Which got me thinking. If they’re famous, millions of people are paying money to read book after book, and as my friend pointed out, they can’t really be bad if that’s the case. I mean, I think they’re bad because, technically speaking, they are. They have shitty cardboard characters, terrible prose, bland style, whatever. But readers don’t read for your style or your characters or plotlines. They read because they want to feel something, and whatever criticisms I have for these writers, they must be making their readers feel or they wouldn’t sell books. It’s that simple.

This was kind of a revelation for me, because until then I’d always been assured that if you were skilful enough as an author and had a decent story, you were guaranteed to become successful to a degree. Now I see the truth: it is entirely possible to write a coherent story with realistic characters and a tight, clear style, and still end up with something shit. I’ve written some, and I’ve read books like this, books I finished with a growing sense of frustration as I turned the pages, wanting to know what was going to happen next even though nothing about it interested me. This is so fucking boring, I would think to myself at the conclusion of each chapter. I can’t wait until I finish all five hundred pages of this shit so I can throw the damn thing away and forget about it.

And that, my friends, is the antithesis to the ‘famous bad writer’. It’s the ‘really good but incredibly boring writer’. He is the guy who has a top of the line tennis racket and an encyclopaedic knowledge of the game and rules, but can’t actually play for shit. The point is, the ‘bad writers’ are still achieving the writer’s most important goal. They are creating emotions in the reader, and doing it consistently enough to make people plough through their awful writing.

So of course, the next logical question is, how the hell do I do that? Obviously, I haven’t cracked this particular nut yet or I’d already be a professional writer myself, but I have a few theories.

I mentioned earlier that human’s aren’t natural readers ‘at first glance’. I say this because in actual fact, people were telling each other stories as soon as they could communicate. Long before the first written symbols appeared, there were cave drawings, and I suspect that before these you had a bunch of hairy cavepeople sitting around a campfire and telling each other about this guy they once saw got eaten by a lion, only it was a lion ten times bigger than normal with a roar like a volcano erupting.

The goal back then, as now, was to get the biggest reaction out of the audience, and I bet they achieved that just as well as modern storytellers, only without the advantage of the written word. In a way, the storyteller had an easier job back then, because he wasn’t concerned with paragraphs, grammar, style, etc. What he did concern himself with were what I think are the most important things, the things which play the biggest part in creating emotion within the reader: characters, story, and suspense.

My reasoning goes like this: You need characters, because a reader cannot feel emotion about a story which does not include other people. You need realistic, interesting characters because the reader must connect the character to a person they know in real life, perhaps even themselves. If you identify a character, you immediately care what happens to them, because you feel like you know them. And if you care what happens to them, then when the storyteller warns of impending doom you feel a bit scared on behalf of them, and when the teller allows them love and happiness, you too feel some of this.

You need story, of course – but it can’t be boring. Bad things must happen, conflict, problems, evil. Whether your characters overcome the conflict or succumb is really irrelevant – as long as the reader feels a strong emotion as a result. The key thing as that the story deeply affects the lives of the characters in some way and causes them to react. It has to be negative, too, because positivity is boring. No one ever reads a story that begins ‘happily ever after’ unless it goes downhill from there. The story must also be subject to the characters, because readers want to see that the people in books have a certain control over their destiny. If you read a book governed by the author entirely, you become bored because it seems like no matter what the characters want, they can’t change anything. Fate becomes predetermined, and the reader starts thinking poisonous thoughts like ‘oh, I bet the girl dies so the author can send the protagonist on a revenge mission,’ or ‘Obviously that unassuming and innocent guy is the murderer, he’s the one I’ve been led to believe is the least suspect!’. One of the better tricks I heard was apparently used by the writers of South Park. They said that instead of thinking of story as something that follows the principle ‘and then this, and then this, and then this,’ they instead thought along the lines of ‘But this, therefore that, but this, therefore that…’ Using the former, you could tell any story you want, and no event need connect to any other nor affect anything else. In the latter, it is impossible to write a story without a logical progression, and without each event both following from what has come before and affecting what will come after.

Finally, I argue for suspense, although that sort of qualifies as an emotion all by itself. I think there are many popular novels out there whose sole powering emotion is suspense, even at the expense of the elements character and story. Neil Gaiman once said that a writer should prize four words above all else: ‘And Then What Happened?’ But it ain’t that simple, either. Here’s a quote from Kurt Vonnegut’s rules on writing: ‘Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

I would agree with everything he says here except for one sentence: ‘To heck with suspense.’ Sure, it’s good for the reader to have total understanding about what’s going on, where and why, but there’s no reason any of that should get in the way of suspense. Most of us know exactly what’s going on in our lives, where and why, but that doesn’t mean shit when it comes to telling our future. Same with books. Knowing isn’t knowing. If anything it can add to the suspense, because with a greater knowledge about what’s going on there are a whole host of potential dangers and hopes for your characters, which you inevitably dwell on.

So. Characters, story, suspense. The catalysts for emotion. It’s just a hypothesis, so let me test it out with you. Here is a story:

Bill was a brave boy, but sometimes he was also very scared. Bill found a monster under his bed, and the monster said: ‘Give me your dinner every night or I’ll eat your parents.’

Bill hated the monster, but every night he went to bed with a growling belly and tears on his face.

He tried to tell his parents, but they laughed and said: ‘Don’t be silly, Bill, there is no monster under your bed.’ They sent him to sleep that night without any dinner.

But Bill was brave, and he would not let the monster eat his parents. So that night, he made a dinner of his own. It sat on a silver platter under cloth, and it was made of pins and nails and knives. He slid it under the bed and the monster ate it all in one gulp like it always did.

Bill lay on his bed and heard the monster choke and cry, and when he looked over the side of the bed as he’d always been too afraid to do, he saw blood soaking into the carpet.

Later that night, Bill’s father came to tuck him in, and said: ‘Did you learn your lesson, Bill?’

‘Yes, Daddy,’ said Bill. That night he went to bed with a growling belly, and a smile on his face.

 

Okay, so the story is 222 words long and written fast, but I think I did okay. Basically, it was the shortest story I could make while satisfying all the criteria I set for myself. In every single sentence I either develop character or the story, and in some sentences (4th and 5th) I do both in different clauses. The suspense comes in by the first sentence, specifically when I state that Bill is not only brave but also scared, thus raising a question – and as we all know, questions are the essence of suspense.

But how did it turn out? If it were a fatter, 3000 word story I could have added in a lot of extra stuff and it wouldn’t read like a children’s book, but that’s beside the point. The point is, did it do anything for you? If it did, I might be on to something. If not, well I was gonna go back to the drawing board anyway.

So, to answer the question in the title of this post… we read because reading makes us feel. In the end, writing is like sex. You can enjoy yourself all you want, but if you do it right the other person will get the most out of it. You have to make them feel something. Of course, if you usually try to make your readers feel terror and revulsion like me, it’s probably not the best analogy.

Anyways, I liked my story, was it good for you too?

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