10 Non-SF/F Books That Meant the Most to Me (as a Writer)
Posted on January 12, 2014 Posted by John Scalzi 52 Comments
A few months back I wrote about The 10 SF/F Books That Meant the Most to Me in the days before I was a published science fiction author. It’s worth noting, however, that I didn’t only read science fiction and fantasy growing up, nor were the writers and books I admired — and which I think eventually helped shape me as a writer — confined only to those genres. Indeed, how much poorer my life would have been, both as a reader and a writer, if I had read only in one thin slice of the literary world.
So, for your interest and delight, I present ten non-SF/F books that meant the most to me as a growing writer. Again, this list is confined to the time prior to me writing books of my own; the latest I encountered one of them was when I was in college. Likewise, as with the earlier list, this is not a list of “best” or “most important” works in a general or competitive sense — just the ones that had an impact on me, and with particular regard to the sort of writer I would eventually become. This list is in alphabetical order, by author.
J.L. Austin: How to Do Things With Words: I have a degree in philosophy and the focus of that degree is language and all the things we do with it. Of all the books and philosophers that I read in the course of obtaining that degree, this book, and Austin, stand out. For one thing, Words is a surprisingly enjoyable read — it’s taken from a series of lectures, and Austin was apparently aware that speeches work better if you’re not falling asleep at them. For another thing, Austin put into words a thing I had always believed but (appropriately) wasn’t able to express: That language itself could do things, not just say to do things — that it wasn’t just a vehicle for intention, but could be used for action. Whether Austin intended it this way or not, this said to me that language has its own native powers, and got me to think about what I and everyone else was doing, intentionally or not, when we used the words we used. That’s been useful for both my fiction and non-fiction.
Truman Capote: In Cold Blood: I read this in middle school, for my own curiosity rather than a book assignment (I don’t imagine the book, then or now, would be assigned in most middle schools). I can’t remember specifically why I picked up the book, but I remember being sucked into it by the way Capote told the story, setting the scene and chronicling the events in a way that read halfway between journalism and fiction. I’d learn later that people called it (both positively and negatively) a “non-fiction novel,” which I think very accurately represents the feel of the book. There is some question as to whether all the details of the book are accurate to true life (it seems not), but for me it was captivating to read it and know that this — or something very like it — happened in the real world.
Louise Fitzhugh: Harriet the Spy: I read this, I think, in fifth grade, and there was a massive disconnect between the late 70s poverty-ridden suburban California boy I was and the mid-60s privileged New York girl that Harriet was, and yet I felt a very real connection to her. We were both smart, observant, stubborn and more than occasionally jerks, as much out of the principle of the thing as anything else. Fitzhugh did two important things in Harriet: One, she didn’t make Harriet any more likable than she should have been, and that was a revelation in itself. Two, she told an unvarnished truth about human relationships (through the character of Ole Golly) and trusted Harriet — and by extension the reader — to understand the subtleties at play there. It was a book for kids that took the kids seriously, as characters and readers both.
Stephen King: Christine: Christine was not the first Stephen King book I read (that would be The Stand, which I read at ten years old, which is, uh, an interesting age to read that particular book), but it was the first Stephen King book I read where I got what it was that King was doing — making a normal world with normal people in it and have everything progressively go further and further into hell. King doesn’t write like someone who condescends to the Great American Middle, or tries to explain the people in it to readers on the outside, staring in like they were at the zoo (which is among other things why he was underappreciated for as long as he was by literary critics). He just shoves those people into the crucible and waits for the heat and pressure to kill them or make them heroes, and writes interestingly about what happens to them either way. This is hugely important stuff. Christine isn’t King’s best, but it’s the one that I first took an important writing lesson from, and for the purposes of this list, that’s good enough.
Gregory Mcdonald: Fletch: Fletch and Mcdonald are important to me for one word: Dialogue. As in, Mcdonald was a master of it, and it was absolutely essential to Fletch (and its many sequels). How important? Important enough that the book’s dialogue was — and as you can see from the cover shown here, still is — a featured graphic element on the book covers of the entire series. That’s a genuinely remarkable thing. And it’s correct; the dialogue is incredibly important in establishing characters, setting scene and telling large chunks of the story. Mcdonald was not big on description; it was hardly there and when it was, it was the bare minimum required for the story. It’s not a stretch to suggest that of all genre writers, the one that my writing style is closest to is Mcdonald. It’s also worth noting that when I first set down to see if I could write a novel, I more or less flipped a coin to see if I would write one in science fiction or one in the crime genre. In another, slightly different universe, it’s entirely possible that the reviews for first novel I had published have me hailed as “the next Mcdonald” rather than “the next Heinlein.” I would have been okay with that.
H.L. Mencken: A Mencken Chrestomathy: In my freshman year of high school I was reading from a book of quotations and noticed that many of the best quotes — the ones that were really punchy — were from some dude named Mencken. I went to my school library, which had the Chrestomathy, checked it out and started reading. By the time I was done with the book two things had happened. One, I had fallen in love with the 1920s (a fact which will be important later in the list). Two, I wanted to be a newspaper columnist really really badly. It’s not at all incorrect to suggest that for the first portion of my writing life, the part where I wrote columns and reviews for a living, Mencken was arguably the most significant influence. Nor is it incorrect to suggest that he continues to be important, since you may note that I’ve been writing columns here for more than fifteen years, and have no intention of stopping.
Dorothy Parker: The Portable Dorothy Parker: As noted above, HL Mencken was my entrance into the world of 1920s literati, and it wasn’t long until I made the acquaintance of the members of the Algonquin Round Table. They were funny and witty and, from across the gulf of six decades, the possessors of the sort of deeply romanticized writing life I wanted to have one day when I grew up. Pre-eminent among them for her wit, her quippiness and general smarts, was Parker. The Portable has many of the good bits I first enjoyed from her, as well as the bits that I enjoyed the older I got and the more I learned about Parker and her compatriots, and realized that the quippy glamour of their lives was not all there was to it, and the rest of their lives were as muddled and occasionally unhappy as anyone else’s (she did end up attempting suicide, after all). For all that, if one has to have an early idol of humor and wit, one could have done far worse than Ms. Parker.
Carl Sagan: Cosmos: The companion book to the TV series was given to me as a birthday gift, I think for my eleventh or twelfth birthday. The big, beautiful, full-color hardcover, I would note, which to me seemed like the most amazing thing humanity had created to that point. I spent about a month just looking at pictures and captions before diving in and reading the actual text — which of course was another treat in itself. Sagan’s obvious love of science and the universe, and his desire to share that love in a way that was accessible to all but the most truculent of others, is something that I took to heart when I was writing my own non-fiction and even in my science fiction: That most things can be explained to most people, in a way that didn’t talk down or condescend but instead lets people in on the secret and makes them want to know more. That’s a gift I can’t thank the man enough for.
George Bernard Shaw: Saint Joan: In high school I had a class called Individual Humanities, the idea being that the whole point of civilization was the development of “independently acting and thinking individuals who saw as their highest life crisis service to their community.” Which is a hell of an idea if you think about it. One of the readings for the class was Saint Joan, and along with the play itself, we read the prefatory material (which with many of Shaw’s works was often longer than the play itself) in which Shaw discussed the “evolutionary appetite”: the idea that some people, against all personal benefit or gain, are compelled to act in a way that pulls humanity forward (often with kicking and screaming on humanity’s part). It’s a heady idea, and whether it has a rational basis in fact, it’s something that’s embedded in my head when I write characters who are facing crises of their own.
David Wallechinsky and Irving Wallace: The People’s Almanac: I ate this book and its two sequels when I was a kid. It was random and yet so densely packed with digestible information that it seemed likely that everything it was possible to know was in the book. For a six year old with a voracious reading appetite, which I certainly was, it was godsend. My mom thought the same thing, since she could give it to me and I would squirrel up in a corner with it for hours at a time. From these books I learned that everything could be interesting, and since everything could be interesting, that it was interesting to learn about everything. This is an idea and ethos that have served me well as a writer: Since I know a little about a lot of things, it’s convinced people to pay me to write on those subjects (which has given me a reason to learn more about them and get paid while doing it). It also makes me excited to tell other people about what I’ve learned. If you want to know where it all began for me, in terms of writing, this really is the place to start.
Not noted here: A number of works for stage and screen, and other non-literary media which still require writing, and the brains that create that writing. I’ll talk about those, possibly, some other time.
For those who will note that this list is thin on writers of color, etc: Yup. Welcome to my reading life, 1975 – 1990. I’m the first to agree that although I read outside the genre I would eventually write in, it doesn’t mean that I was reading tremendously far outside the established lines at the time. I am making up for some of that as I go along, because among other things I’m aware of what I haven’t read before.
Wikipedia has Dorothy Parker dying of a heart attack, though she did attempt suicide.
I’ve finally gotten my hands on “Old Man’s War” and its sequels; 38 pages into “The Ghost Brigades” I can see GB Shaw’s influence clearly on your character development. Also McDonald’s in the dialogue, both spoken and internal. I am both dying to keep reading and loathe to finish the series!
Yay, the People’s Almanac! And its cousins, The Book(s) of Lists.
“Cosmos” was an awe-inspiring book, in the most literal sense. Sagan knew how to talk to people, rather than at them. It’s a too-rare gift.
I haven’t read any of those books, yet what you say about how they impacted on you makes complete sense.
I found a couple of the Fletch books at a used bookstore a few years ago, and picked them up because I enjoyed the movies (I knew about the books, but never read any). I fell in love right away.
I too had a similar experience with Stephen King and Christine in particular. It was amazing to grow up reading my own working class experience in the pages of those incredible stories. And so funny. The man, on many occasions, practically made me piss my pants. I read the The Stand in high school and it introduced me to things I had not yet really imagined so to read that novel at age ten must have been eye popping.
I’d swap out Major Barbara for Saint Joan, although that first scene is a real kick. But Major Barbara is a cold true look at philanthropy and its place in society, and the stories we tell ourselves about why we do what we do. GBS was a much more prolific than an insightful one but when he did hit the target he hit it hard. I’d also recommend Pygmalion and my two personal faves: The Apple Cart and Arms and the Man.
Mencken and Dorothy Parker were both sincere influences of mine too. I decided not to take up either tobacco or alcohol to the extent modeled, but I really did seem to have Parker’s talent for bad romances, along the lines of “smart women can’t possibly end up with emotionally abusive men, can they?” Ah well.
At 55, I’ve rather given up on the equal partnership thing, and discovered I’m very high functioning aspie — something that seems to have shocked the hell out of everyone in my generation and none of my son’s. ;)
But writing, for me, is a process of taking a gestalt idea and translating it to linear form — very little of conventional writing pedagogy helps me (although I can often help people with rough patches in their own writing). Long form fiction may always be beyond me, but poetry and flash fiction are awesome fun (tiny gestalts).
Writing and the character of the writer seem like a recurring theme here lately. You seem to have a few here who are not only writers, but outspoken characters and figures in their fields and influencers in the affairs of the world.
Regardless, I wish there were more particularly who read and modeled Mencken today, with the issues in the press and world affairs. And with the quality of writing and journalism in that sphere. We could use more Edward R. Murrows and Menckens.
And more Dorothy Parkers and Edna St Vincent Millays.
To name a few.
My list would be different, because (a) I’m not a writer and (b) I’m a lot older than you, so that some of the books (Capote, Fitzhugh, King, Mcdonald, Sagan) hadn’t yet been written in my tender years. But Mencken and Parker, yes; and I read almost all the others later on. A fine list.
Happily, this list came out right as I am facing two weeks of no work.
I think the only books I already read are Harriet the Spy and Cosmos.
And both of them can stand up to re-reading ;)
It’s also always a good idea to read the classics, and I don’t only mean the Greek and Roman ones. Poe, Walpole, Wells, Verne, Lovecraft, Twain, and hundreds of others are wonderful.
For non-fiction, try Gaius Julius Caesar’s account of the Gaullic Wars – it’s available both in Latin and Translation.
Oh, and I’ve learned more about past cultures from watching Time Team than anywhere else. The commentary is fantastic, and who knows, someday Phil Harding might actually get a new hat!
Fletch was wonderful and, until the movie came out, I thought I was the only person in the world who’d read it. So happy to see that you also read it, enjoyed it, and that it had an impact on your writing.
Re: Dorothy Parker. What did you think of the film “Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle”?
I miss Carl Sagan so much.
For me, the influential books were mostly science.
The Stars by H. A. Rey
The World We Live In Life Magazine
Chaos: Making a New Science by James Gleick
Getting Started with TRS 80 Basic (Or, whatever book came with our TRS-80. Google is failing me, and my garage is too messy to dig the book out.)
Encyclopedia Brown by Donald J. Sobol
I only realised recently just how much of an influence some of the books I loved as a child have had on the way I view the world.
Mine don’t overlap with yours but would have included Gerald Durell,James Heriott, the Asterix and TinTin books and P.G. Wodehouse.
I stole your original “10 SF/F” idea for my own blog not long after you wrote yours, and this sounds fun too. Currently racking my brain; the first eight were easy, but I’m having trouble coming up with two more that don’t sound like cheats in some way. In other news, I have *both* the Austin book and a Mencken collection on my get-to-this-soon shelf.
Harriet the Spy was one of the books I checked out of the library over and over and over and over… A few months ago, I bought a battered and used copy of the book. This book stuck with me.
For non-fiction, try Gaius Julius Caesar’s account of the Gaullic Wars – it’s available both in Latin and Translation.
I second the motion. I read “Gallic Wars” some years ago, (in translation–my 8th grade Latin is far too rusty for that) and learned quite a bit about Julias Caesar the military commander from that. The pop-culture version of Caesar is based on modern dramas that are heavily based on Suetonius’ “The Twelve Caesars” (Read the first two volumes for the entire plot of HBO’s “Rome”…), and Suetonius concentrated on the Roman political stuff and the, ah, “gossipy bits”, not the military campaigns.
Julius Caesar, in actuality, was completely unlike the Hollywood/pop-culture cliche of an ancient warlord–his military strategy and tactics were pretty much what the U.S. Army teaches today. Logistics was paramount in his thinking; he created and used a cadre of staff officers; his men were NOT expendable fodder; and he was constantly considering ‘what could go wrong and how would I deal with it?’ while on the march or in battle.
One can learn so much more by reading the sources rather than depending on the distilled pop-culture version of history.
Brilliant list. The Stephen King (Richard Bachman) book that had a similar effect on me was THINNER. Again, not his best, but good enough to absorb a writing lesson or two.
The People’s Almanac. Bloody ‘ell I’d damn near forgotten that one.
Arthur Ransome’s “Swallows and the Amazons” series were among the first I read where girls as well as boys not only had adventures, but could be counted on to act well in stressful situations. By high school I had read TE Lawrence’s “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” and a number of other books on not only Lawrence but the Middle East in general. Another one I read and have re read many times since was Murasaki’s “Tale of Genji.” then there were the many Nancy Drew books…as well as the Hardy Boys.
HARRIET THE SPY!!!!!! *gabbles with excitement and passes out*
Pat: I’m another person who was heavily influenced by T. E. Lawrence. Good choice. :) (For me, it was probably because I first imprinted on Dune, age 4-5 and then saw Lawrence of Arabia and was blown away, ages 9 and 11.)
The People’s Almanac and The Book of Lists were two of my favorites as well.
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I ran across Parker at about 24 in a book titled “The Portable Curmudgeon”, leading me to “Not So Deep As A Well” and then “The Portable Dorothy Parker”. At her best, her poems just snap. I wonder if I had been introduced to her poems in high school if I would have taken to reading poetry earlier- as it was it took me a long time to make my way to it, finding Millay and Kipling along the way….
For a long time I owned “The Divine Comedy” translated by Dorothy Parker. Not sure what happened to my copy, but it was an excellent edition to own. It had maps, footnotes, and was very readable.
Stephen King: I still like a lot of his novels, but find that the ones that are the best are those where as you put it, he is “making a normal world with normal people in it and have everything progressively go further and further into hell”. The novels I can’t stand are always the ones with characters you actively dislike reading about (which is NOT the same as “characters you dislike but whose life is fun to read about”) or characters you barely know who are put into a bad situation so fast that you don’t care what happens to them. (Gerald’s Game, I’m looking at you here.)
The first 3 Fletch novels ought to be read by most aspiring writers – not just for the dialogue, but because of the economy of description that doesn’t slow you down.
The books you mention that I haven’t read yet, I should move to the front of my reading list.
I remember “To kill a Mockingbird” by Lee Harper had a profound affect on me during High School and somewhere during those years I developed a taste for Dashiell Hammett style of writing. Fond memories.
My list would include Hiroshima by John Hersey. I must have found that book in 5th or 6th grade, and I know it changed my feelings regarding American actions in WWII. I still have that little Modern Library edition on my shelf, and I still re-read it every few years.
Ummm…I bet you mean Dorothy Sayers, not Dorothy Parker, as the translator of Dante. There is a certain similarity between the two, but DP was no scholar.
Gregory McDonald, oh how he is missed. I have to say, Confess, Fletch, also the introduction of the character Flynn, is one of the most delightful books I own, and it’s dialogue is the whole of it. On that level, for me, just pure joy in the language, is P.G. Wodehouse’s, Leave It to Psmith. If you’ve never read the Psmith series, read them, for the same reason you love McDonald.
Arrrrgh. “It’s”, “It’s” instead of Its. Why is there no edit button?
There is, however, a preview button.
I loved the People’s Almanac when I was in high school, partially because I was then (and still am) a lover of trivial facts. My wife gave me Christine soon after we were married and I never looked at a classic car the same way, since I’m convinced all cars have their own personality anyway.
However, I would put James Thurber on my list of big influences (despite the murder Hollywood has been committing over the years to “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”); his ability to put emotion and pathos into short and frequently funny short stories, fables and cartoons to me is unmatched in American literature. Read “The Catbird Seat” or any of his short stories about his dogs growing up if you don’t believe me.
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@jessica weisman – yes of course, I meant Dorothy Sayers. Big oops there,
@Doug from Tally – Hollywood commits murder to many (most?) short stories and books that it gets its hooks into adapting. It’s unfortunate but that is how they make all that money. Good thing the originals are still around.
I always include “The Fannie Farmer Cookbook” on this kind of list. It arguably has had the most positive influence on my life of any single book.
Also, go Harriet the Spy!
Interesting selection. A small point: With respect to In Cold Blood, it wasn’t “people” but Capote himself who classified his work as a “non-fiction novel.” Capote was interviewed about this in 1966 (see http://www.nytimes.com/books/97/12/28/home/capote-interview.html).
Count me in with the Gregory McDonald fans – and yes, I definitely see the influence. It would be fun to see you do something as utterly dialogue driven as his Fletch books. Short story perhaps?
So what is your favorite from King – if you can pick exactly one..
Thanks John. I’m actually reading Consider Phlebus based on your previous post about Iaian M. Banks. I have been reading several author blogs looking for book tips.
Thanks for another thought-piquing post, John. I’m 20 years older than you, but your list looks a lot like mine would. Instead of J.L. Austin, Strunk & White’s “The Elements of Style” and, somewhat later, William Zinsser’s “On Writing Well” hammered home the best lessons on smithing words. I followed a different path to Dorothy Parker and the Algonquin Round Table’s other writers, shepherded by James Thurber’s “The Years With Ross.” I still sip Mencken’s “Minority Report” for a dash of bitters in life’s cocktail. Unlike you, I went into and stayed with journalism; nonfiction’s Ernie Pyle and John McPhee are on my list instead of novelists Stephen King and Louise Fitzhugh. We’re in sync on the rest, although by your rules I couldn’t claim Mcdonald as a pre-professional influence, because “Fletch” came out after I’d worked for a few years. You’re absolutely right about his skill with dialogue. I believe he developed his “ear” as a reporter in Boston before he became a full-time novelist.
My version; this really was fun to think about and to write, even if I only managed eight books before feeling like I was cheating: http://infinitefreetime.com/2014/01/13/the-8-non-sff-books-that-meant-the-most-to-me/
When I was a kid it was mostly sf, plus whatever the school teachers assigned; all those classics like ‘Lord of the Flies’ and ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and ‘The Miracle Worker’.
My taste still runs to fiction, sometimes Shakespeare, sometimes thrillers (went through a Mickey Spillane phase ;-) ) If you’ve never read Thomas McGuane, look for ‘Nothing But Blue Skies.’
Favorite non-fiction writer is John Gierach, who writes about fly fishing. Like that other John, our host, he graduated with a degree in philosophy. Great stuff.
I remember reading “In Cold Blood” at about the same age, for an English class. As you mentioned, it was often referred to as a non-fiction novel; in fact, one reviewer called it the first of it’s kind. When we discussed that in class, I pointed out that a few hundred years before, Daniel Defoe had written “A Journal of the Plague Year” in just that style and my teacher complimented me on my perceptiveness. Boy, was I pleased with myself!
If you want dialogue, you want George V Higgins – most especially “The Rat on Fire”
Great list. Minor typo: “much out of the principal of” in the discussion of Harriet the Spy should have “principle”.
Oh, reading King well before the advised age. I picked up IT at eleven or twelve: could not sleep for a day or two, but otherwise really enjoyed it. (And That One Scene squicked me out a lot less, as a result, than it did people who came to the book later in life.) Probably warped me in interesting and permanent ways.