If there is one book you read as a dog lover, dog owner, dog handler, or dog professional, let it be Alexandra Horowitz‘s 2010 book, Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know. The only fault I find with this book is actually a fault of my own: that I didn’t find and read it sooner. In the Q&A section beyond the book’s main chapters, readers encounter this question: “How is your book different than other dog books? Does the world need another book on dogs?” Before reading Horowitz’s answer, I knew mine: Yes. If it’s this one, definitely. Yes, it does.
Inside of a Dog is different from any other dog book you have ever read. Rife with short, heartfelt narratives about Horowitz’s own experiences with her beloved dog, Pumpernickel, affectionately called Pump, this scientific and informative piece is relatable and human.
Though Horowitz herself says this “is not a sentimental book,” I would describe it as an effortless mix of sentiment and science, though I admit the likelihood that that perception stems largely from my own sentimentality. I have always loved books that make me cry. Perhaps I was foolish not to think this book would be one of them. The idea that a scientific, informative book of interest to me for practical purposes and general curiosity would make me cry, never crossed my mind. I expected to learn, to be intrigued. I didn’t expect poetry. I didn’t expect to smile so often or cry so much. I never expected so informative a book to also be so emotional.
Human beings act on emotion as much as, if not more than, on reason, so Horowitz’s ability to make sensitive the science, or to make readers sensitive to the science’s ramifications for our own dogs and the quality of the relationships we have with them, not to mention their quality of life, is only appropriate, to say the least.
Her writing utilizes an extensive vocabulary I admire, and is poetic, eloquent, and even tender. The way Horowitz manages to make so educational a book so personal is impressive. Despite its informative nature, the book successfully avoids a didactic tone, and opts instead for a relatable one that is engaging, illuminating, and perspective-changing.
Human beings act on emotion as much as, if not more than, on reason. Horowitz’s ability to make sensitive the science is appropriate, to say the least.
The biggest disappointment about this book is actually the biggest disappointment about humans’ relationship with dogs: that despite so much science, so little has changed in the last 11 years regarding our relationships with our dogs. People are still uninformed or misinformed, and their dogs–and their relationships with them–pay the price.
One of my favorite literary characters, Anne Shirley, often discusses kindred spirits. Ever since I met her on the page, Anne felt like an old friend to me. She is the reason I savor sunsets and sunrises, can’t keep myself indoors on a beautiful day, and shamelessly used the phrase “alabaster brow” in much of my pre-teen ramblings.
When I read Mary Oliver’s book of poetry, Dog Songs, recently, I found a second kindred spirit on the page. Here is a woman who writes about cancelling a trip because she feels her dog does not want her to go, who says one of the most beautiful sights is a dog running unleashed on a beach, who relishes waking at night to snuggle her dog.
Now, I feel as though I have found a third: Alexandra Horowitz, an advocate of sharing our beds with our dogs, of reveling in the joyful greetings we share upon reuniting after a day apart, of not bathing our dogs or cleaning our homes as frequently as society would have us believe we should, and of allowing a dog to be a dog–and understanding what that means.
One of the biggest ideas in the book is “Umwelt,” a German word describing the way a particular being experiences existence and the world. By understanding that our dogs’ Umwelt is not the same as ours–in large part because their sense of smell is primary, where our sense of sight is; because their eyeline is far lower than ours; because of a whole slew of other often overlooked facts–we can better understand their needs, desires, behaviors, etc..
If you want a more informed, fulfilling relationship with your dog, do yourself–and your dog–a favor: Read this book. Learn its lessons. Take them to heart. It will change your life, and your dog’s, for the better.
I know, I know. Everyone is waving an enthusiastic sayonara to 2020 and never looking back, the expectations high for 2021. I don’t know whether to wish the new year good luck meeting everyone’s extreme expectations for improvement, or congratulate it on the fact that it won’t have to work very hard to seem better than its predecessor. Either way, as I sit here on December 31 reflecting on my year in writing, it was a pretty good one. (And yes, 2021, my writing and I have high expectations for you, too.)
The first week of the year, I entered three different writing contests. I didn’t win any of them, but putting my work out there is a huge accomplishment in and of itself (and one of the photos I entered in one of the writing/photography contests did earn second place).
Before the month was over, I taught two, single-session writing classes for the dog handlers of Canine Adventure, Richmond. This experience was a lot of fun because it combined two of my favorites: writing and dogs. In addition, I got to meet some fellow dog-loving writers, and give them some resources to further their own writing endeavors.
In February, I wrote a piece forEveryday Dog Magazine, which ran March 1. I also wrote another piece for The Village News, in addition to submitting work to two small presses.
Things got a little crazy in March, as we are all aware, but I did compose a blog post to help parents navigate the whole, then-brand new school-at-home thing. I also wrote an article for The Village News about a local, self-published author, especially fun because I love when I can use my own writing to support other writers in theirs.
I wrote my second and third Covid-related pieces, both of which focused on local businesses. The first was an article about a how a local barbecue restaurant was serving the community and surviving the pandemic. The second focused on how a local hair salon planned to reopen under the Governor’s Phase I Guidelines in Virginia.
Finally, for the first time ever, I opened the blog up to guest posts, and enjoyed reading submissions from writers about their beloved dogs.
In June, I participated in a virtual event honoring the winners of the Bike Walk RVA essay contest, and collaborated with QueryLetter.com on a blog post about query letters.
I again found myself working with the folks at QueryLetter.com to share a blog post, this time about book blurbs.
This was also the month The Magic of Dogs was released (on the same day as our wedding anniversary), and the month I received my copies of the book.
In August, things were kind of quiet in my writing world, but I did compose a blog post for teachers about back-to-school amid the pandemic. I was also hired as the Outdoor Writer for Cooperative Living Magazine, a role I am still extremely excited about.
In September, I partnered up with Cool Canines to host a virtual book signing, reading, and fundraiser for the Richmond SPCA. Dog treats and signed copies of The Magic of Dogs raised $178 for the shelter.
Before the month’s end, I finally figured out how to share “Sadie’s Song” online. The song is a collaboration between my uncle and me. It began as a poem I wrote back in April, which he then set to original music.
In November, I interviewed a Covid-19 survivor and told his harrowing survival story in an article in The Village News. I also continued working on revisions of An Expected End.
As the year winds down, I have heard from the small press I have been in contact with that my piece isn’t for them, but I am still grateful for the communication with them, and for the guidance they provided me, as well as for the resulting revisions, which I believe make my manuscript that much stronger.
I also embarked on my first adventure for Cooperative Living Magazine, a weekend at Twin Lakes State Park, and I eagerly await the publication of the piece next month (next year!).
I learned about another small press, TCK Publishing, when they reached out to me about writing a book review for them. I read the book, wrote the review, and submitted my own manuscript for consideration.
The operative word in Peter Yang’s book The Art of Writing: Four Principles for Great Writing that Everyone Needs to Know is “everyone.” As he writes in his introduction, “Everyone can be a writer, if they so choose” (XII). Indeed, the book expresses the idea that, regardless of profession or position, we all need to write, and write well, and is a book for everyone. The seasoned writer might gain insights from the way Yang breaks down and analyzes the practice of writing, but the book would likely prove more useful to those desiring to improve their writing for the workplace, pleasure, or posterity, as well as to beginning writers. With the exception of the fact that an experienced writer or writing instructor is likely to understand concepts in the book that Yang merely glosses over as opposed to deeply explaining, a feature of the book that might prove a disadvantage to its intended audience, it would serve as a helpful handbook to the aspiring writer, regardless of field.
Yang sees “writing as a fundamental life skill” (X), a very valid position, though I would also add “process”–writing is a process and a fundamental life skill. Given the way Yang’s book progresses, it seems he would agree with that addition. He examines what he believes are the four fundamental principles for effective writing: economy, transparency, variety, and harmony. A writer, he posits, who masters these four areas can, as a result, write artistically, making writing “a joyous activity” that leads to “personal fulfillment” (XIII). This type of writing does not endeavor to impress, Yang explains, but to communicate.
He goes on to list five distinguishing attributes of artistic writers: meticulousness, awareness of audience, sincerity, realistic expectations, and flexibility with the four aforementioned principles. While his list of attributes is certainly valid, and he provides short explanations of what these attributes are, the list lacks examples of artistic writers to illustrate how they employ these traits.
A lack of examples and in-depth explanations does plague the book, making it perhaps more useful as a supplemental text in a writing course than a thorough examination of the written word and how to best communicate through it. If employed as a supplemental text with a competent writing instructor to provide examples, explanations, and exercises to accompany the book itself, it would prove incredibly useful.
The first principle Yang examines is economy. According to Yang, “The composition of your writing should imitate the anatomy of a flower–every part should be necessary and contribute to the whole” (3). This is sound advice. Yang goes on to provide a short explanation of how to simplify a sentence, an explanation that makes sense to a seasoned writer, but might be lost on a beginner.
Following the paragraph, Yang provides several examples to illustrate his thoughts, but the examples, while accurate, lack explanations that might be helpful to a novice writer. The first several sections of the chapter on economy are rife with examples, but lack clear explanations of what they illustrate. In addition, exercises with a key would prove practical and useful–another reason this book would work well as a text in a classroom with an instructor to facilitate practice.
According to Yang, “A writer’s work can hew to the other three principles but fail to be artistic if it does not conform to the principle of transparency” (23). Transparency he defines essentially as clarity. “Transparent writing is writing that is lucid and explicit. It leaves no room for doubt and assures the intelligibility of your ideas” (23). Given the assertion that writing cannot be artistic if not transparent, even if it complies with the other three principles, I did wonder why transparency appears second in the book, as opposed to first or last.
Despite their questionable placement in the book, Yang’s ideas regarding transparency are spot-on. Particularly relevant areas include the use of figurative language (which Yang himself employs very well throughout the book), the use of shifts in tense, and the avoidance of flowery language.
One thing this chapter does better than the others is provide explanations of the examples included.
In a nutshell…
Peter Yang’s The Art of Writing is likely to prove interesting to a veteran writer, who would appreciate his breakdown of writing into four fundamental principles. It is an ideal text for the student of writing, provided the student has an instructor to elaborate on the concepts Yang touches on. The book is a good introduction to writing, and with the right elaboration, would prove an excellent text for anyone looking to hone their writing skills.
Yang’s chapter on variety is accurate, but ironically enough, the three section titles are:
Vary Your Sentence Structure
Vary Your Paragraph Structure
Vary Your Word Choice.
While all the above advice is sound, I found the lack of variety in the headings amusing, though not inapproriate (here I violate Yang’s advice to “Write in the Positive,” as explained on page 12). The headings are indeed transparent, and the explanations that follow are legitimate.
The fourth and final principle Yang examines is harmony. The explanations in this chapter are clear, concise, and understandable, but do lack concrete examples to illustrate the ideas. While a lack of examples is not likely to matter to a veteran writer, it could matter to a new writer.
After explaining the four basic principles, Yang includes a final chapter that expresses his “Meditations on Writing.” In this chapter Yang writes, “Writing is not for the impatient. Mastery of writing is a lifelong endeavor” (75). Yang could not be more correct. In my experience, Yang is also correct about the value of taking breaks from one’s writing to increase motivation, as well as about the value of taking risks in one’s writing.
Overall, Peter Yang’s The Art of Writing: Four Principles for Great Writing that Everyone Needs to Know expertly distills writing down into four basic principles. It is an incredibly accessible and digestible read, but perhaps too broad and generalizing. That said, it is a book for the general population, so perhaps that is all fitting.
While veteran writers would be most likely to understand and agree with the concepts expressed in this book, they do not necessarily need this book. Instead, the book would be most enlightening to novice writers or people who do not necessarily consider themselves writers, but do write, whether in their professional or personal lives; however, they would be perhaps the least likely to fully grasp the concepts as they are explained in this book–somewhat skeletally. For that reason, this book is best suited for a fairly experienced writer interested in analyzing the written word, or as a guiding or supplemental text in a writing course wherein an instructor could provide further examples, deeper explanations, and practical exercises.
My greatest and broadest takeaway from pages 228-348 of The Book of Joy by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Abrams, was that everything is practical. So many teachings on how to live a more joyful life can seem abstract and theoretical, things I find myself saying, “Well, that sounds great in theory, but in practice, not so much” about. But in this book, almost everything was applicable to real life, in practice.
Practical forgiveness is defined on page 234, when readers are advised by the Archbishop to see forgiveness as a means to freedom. “When we forgive,” he says, “we take back control of our own fate and our feelings. We become our own liberator.” A few pages later, on page 239, he explains a practical way to forgive: separate the person we perceived to have wronged us from his or her actions.
Practical gratitude is discussed on page 248, when the book describes how we can practice gratitude by writing gratitude lists or keeping gratitude journals. Engaging in these exercises helps us focus on what we have as opposed to what we don’t. “Gratitude,” Abrams writes, “means embracing reality. It means moving from counting your burdens to counting your blessings” (243). Now, doesn’t that have a nice ring to it? (Must be the alliteration.)
“Gratitude means embracing reality. It means moving from counting your burdens to counting your blessings.”
Practical compassion is also discussed, which is no surprise, considering “There is probably no word that the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop use more when describing the qualities worth cultivating than compassion” (337). The Dalai Lama tells readers that “when we think of alleviating other people’s suffering, our own suffering is reduced. This is the true secret to happiness. So this is a very practical thing. In fact, it is common sense” (254). The way to practice compassion in our daily lives, then, is to do our best to both understand and alleviate the suffering of others. As the Archbishop says, “It’s something that you have to work out in actual life” (255)–it is something practical, and reminds me a little of the command in the Bible that we all “work out your own salvation.”
On page 272, the book talks about educating youth to be compassionate. As an English teacher, I feel I have a real opportunity to engage in compassion education through the literature I read with my students. Books let us live other lives and walk in other shoes. They allow readers to experience situations and places and emotions and people they might not in their own real lives. Teaching literature is one way I can help educate students in compassion.
The section on compassion also reminded me of the message conveyed in the required #EdEquityVA PD. Like the Dalai Lama says, “the only way to truly change our world is through teaching compassion” (296).
“The only way to truly change our world is through teaching compassion.”
–His Holiness the Dalai Lama
These pages also focus on acceptance, an area in which I often struggle. I suffer from a dangerous idealism that drives my husband (and me, sometimes) crazy. Abrams writes about the Dalai Lama’s ability to “accept the reality of his circumstances but also to see the opportunity in every experience. Acceptance means not fighting reality” (243). When I was a junior in high school and my family was moving from Pennsylvania to Virginia, I overheard Art, a man who attended our church in Pennsylvania, say to my dad after the last service we would attend there, “Well, change is the only constant.” I was, at the time, appalled–and still today, I sometimes wish that awful truth weren’t true. But it is, and I was reminded of it when the Dalai Lama says, “Impermanence … is the nature of life” (unfortunately, I have no idea what page this is on). The fact behind that statement is difficult for me to accept, something I fight against a lot. I do not like change. Acceptance is a pillar I will need to cultivate. A lot.
Lately, I have been pondering the idea of “unselfed love,” and what those two words actually mean together. In my religious faith, our text, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures by Mary Baker Eddy, includes the line: “The prayer that reforms the sinner and heals the sick is an absolute faith that all things are possible to God, — a spiritual understanding of Him, an unselfed love” (1:1-4). The Book of Joy has helped shed a little light on the subject of unselfed love for me. The Archbishop says, “So, our book says that it is in giving that we receive. So I would hope that people would recognize in themselves that it is when we are closed in ourselves that we tend to be miserable. It is when we grow in a self-forgetfulness–in a remarkable way I mean we discover that we are filled with joy” (263). I think the concept of unselfed love relates directly to the idea that when we forget ourselves and instead tend to the joy and lessen the suffering of others, we experience pure joy. There is a letting go of the self, the ego, involved.
Lastly, I want to talk a little more about how these pages relate to my teaching practice and the English 11 curriculum. Lots of what I read reminds me of the Transcendentalists, which is maybe a little bit ironic, because they emphasized individualism so much, while the Archbishop and the Dalai Lama advocate for looking outside of oneself and to others, using the idea (and I paraphrase) “we are people through people.” Still, the idea that people must realize that “the source of happiness and satisfaction … is within themselves” (297) rings true with the Thoreau and Emerson’s advice that people must look within to find their true selves, and self-fulfillment. I also think excerpts of this book, particularly the death mediations, could pair really well with William Cullen Bryant’s poem, “Thanatopsis,” which translates to “a meditation on death” or “a view on death.”
“Joy is the happiness that does not depend on what happens. It is the grateful response to the opportunity that life offers you at this moment.”
In the vein of education and curricula, I found it stunning that at the Tibetan Children’s Village, students “had been studying how to find joy and happiness in the face of adversity” (277). This was not an implied lesson or a byproduct of a larger unit geared towards passing a standardized test or earning a specific grade; they were studying joy for the sake of joy. Joy was the lesson. I would like to find a way to incorporate the teaching of joy, compassion, acceptance, forgiveness, gratitude, etc. more overtly in my current curriculum. I am hoping the lesson and unit plans from Positive Action, Inc., touched on in one of our required PD sessions for the summer, might help with this.
Along those lines, in English 11 Honors, we work throughout the semester to answer an essential question. Because the class is American Literature, the essential question we explore is: What does it mean to be American? I think this book has a place in helping answer this question. For the last two years and up until this year, when the pandemic canceled summer reading (which I really, truly hope is not a permanent change!), students enrolled in English 11 Honors for the upcoming school year read two books over the summer, Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck and Funny in Farsi by Firoozeh Dumas. Provided summer reading is reinstated in the future (please, please, please!), I would like to add The Book of Joy as the third book, as it provides a perspective different from the other two books (which are very different in their own right), and offers a very different idea about national (and human!) identity.
Now, I want to close with one of my favorite quotes from these pages, which comes from Brother Steindl-Rast: “Joy is the happiness that does not depend on what happens. It is the grateful response to the opportunity that life offers you at this moment” (245). Now, doesn’t that have a nice ring to it? (Must be the alliteration, assonance, and consonance.)
I sat in the passenger seat of my husband’s pickup truck, riding along the country roads in the Northern Neck on a Saturday morning, my two little dogs asleep between us on the bench seat, their scruffy hair blowing in the air conditioning. It was a hot, sunny day in late June, and we were heading to a small beach on the shore of the Potomac River, where it opens wide to the Chesapeake Bay. Outside my car window, I watched the fields, green with corn, and the wildflowers, alive with butterflies, flourish under the summer sun. It was summer break. I was beachbound.
And I was crying.
Despite my situation seeming so pleasant–even idyllic, I felt pretty miserable. My inner experience was completely incongruent with my outer experience. I felt so stressed and anxious about the upcoming school year and all I would have to learn and change and do to prepare, much less be effective (not to mention safe), in the face of a global pandemic, that I was struggling to enjoy the present moment. My worries and uncertainties about the future were stealing any present peace I might have hoped to enjoy.
Around the same time as the situation described above, I began participating in a book group begun at my school. The group, which focused on the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Abrams’s The Book of Joy, could not have been better timed for me, both professionally and personally–especially since my professional life and my personal life often seem to bleed into each other.
On page 88 of the book, we read that “…so much is determined by our own perception.” My perception of the pandemic and how it would affect me at work and at home come August was an extremely negative one–one that did not serve me or the people around me. It was a perception that brought about fear, insecurity, self-doubt, and stress. Some of what I have read in this book has helped me think about reshaping my perspective to see the current situation and next school year as a challenge instead of an obstacle, as an opportunity for professional and personal growth instead of a hindrance to peace. Part
of what makes this perspective shift possible is an idea expressed on pages 196 and 197. Douglas Abrams writes, “When we confront a challenge, we often react to the situation with fear and anger.” He might as well have replaced “we” with “you,” so accurately does this sentence describe my initial reaction to challenges, which I tend to see as frustrating inconveniences at best, insurmountable obstacles at worst. On the next page, Abrams advises, “…what we think is reality is only part of the picture” and “our limited perspective is not the truth.” The book goes on to talk about taking a broader perspective–about realizing that we are not alone, and that all of our roles (AKA Teacher During A Pandemic) are temporary. Thinking about my present situation in a longer view, “in the larger frame of [my] life” (198), enables me to see that in the future, it will be just one strange year of a years-long career, a little blip in the otherwise mostly smooth (I hope!) experience. Thinking about my present situation in a wider view, I am able to see that even now, in the throes of it, people around me are innovating and collaborating like never before. They have all learned to “…respond instead of react” (181), a lesson I am trying to take to heart for myself.
In the vein of learning, another idea that comforted me was the concept that we are all learning–that our lives consist of innumerable lessons, each tailored to our own needs. At one point in the book, we learn that Abrams’s father suffered a terrible injury as a result of a fall. When Abrams’s brother told their father he was sorry he was going through such a rough time, his father’s response was: “‘It’s all part of my curriculum’” (157). I love this idea. “It’s all part of my curriculum” can serve as a reminder that we are all getting the lessons we need. In my case, these are likely lessons in flexibility and grace (not to mention instructional technology…).
A few days ago, I was lamenting to my husband about the fact that I don’t believe I will be as effective a teacher next year as I hope I have been in years past–that I don’t know how to use the technology and even if I figure it out, I won’t know how to use it well. That I don’t have the first lesson plan done. That I don’t even know where to start. That I feel woefully unprepared on a number of levels. On page 211, the Archbishop says, “…even if you are not the best one, you may be the one who is needed or the one who is there.” I don’t think I am going to be the best anything next year, least of all teacher, but I am going to be the one who is there, in the classroom, and for next year, that might have to be enough.
I sat in the passenger seat of my husband’s pickup truck, watching employees scurry around a parking lot at a Chick-Fil-A, tirelessly delivering to-go chicken to cars parked in numbered spaces throughout the lot. It was a warm, humid evening in early July, and we were heading to my parents for dinner with my sister and her family. Outside my car window, I watched as what must have been a dozen masked people ran around in black pants and red polo shirts. They had not worked like this before–wearing masks in the heat, serving food through car windows, hoofing drink carriers from the drive-through
window to the far end of the parking lot. But here they were, uncomplaining, productive, and efficient, serving the needs of their customers. Reading this book enabled me to draw a parallel between what I was watching from my passenger seat, and the work I myself need to do for next school year. If these Chick-Fil-A employees could work this hard and this well under these conditions–then couldn’t I do it, too? Granted, we waited 30 minutes for our meal–but everyone I saw was working so hard, the wait hardly seemed important. What was important, though, was realizing I wasn’t alone. I’m not alone. None of us are. Since the shutdown in March, essential workers all over the world have had to adapt how they operate–including my own husband, who works at a bank. I can’t promise I won’t find myself crying again before school starts in September, or several times throughout the school year as I struggle to adjust to the demands of the unknown, but now I can remind myself that we are all in this together. That other people are struggling, too. That it is okay not to be the best one. And that it’s all just “part of my curriculum.”
Reedsy is a publishing company that helps authors realize their publishing dreams by connecting them with professional editors, designers, and marketers. Since our founding in 2014, we’ve helped countless self-published writers perfect and launch their books. However, about two years ago, we realized there was another side of the equation we hadn’t addressed: the review and recommendation side of the book industry.
Hence, the idea for Reedsy Discovery was born. We wanted to create a book-focused platform where authors can promote their books and readers can discovernew titles to peruse. And while we regularly shine a spotlight on up-and-coming indie titles, the bibliophiles in us will never stop cherishing all good literature. Which is why Reedsy’s content team decided to curate a list of the 115 best books of all time. If you’re wondering how we took on this gigantic task, read on!
Deciding on the Structure
Before we even started selecting titles, we needed to decide the basis on which we would organize this list. There have been so many masterpieces crafted throughout time, and we hardly knew where to begin! Naturally, we were immediately drawn to the idea of having a list of classics available in the English language. But we wanted to go a bit further.
Particularly, we wanted to draw attention to the fact that there is more to the world of written text than English literary exploits. What of spiritually-rich ancient recordings? What of stories from across the globe?
While we realized that many of these wouldn’t be considered books the way we know them today, the fact that they told tales meant that they were as close to books as was possible at the time. With this in mind, we decided to structure our list according to a vast timeline: from ancient times to the post-classical era to the contemporary world.
Looking for Titles from Across Cultures
The criteria for the “best books” has certainly changed over time, especially as voices and styles have adapted to fit each society’s ever-evolving readership. However, we made a point to include stories that pulled readers in, narratives that moved souls, and prose that was considered beautiful both at the time of publication and decades later.
It didn’t matter what language the story was told in, because an enticing tale transcends borders. You will find in our list many texts that are pillars in Chinese and in Indian literature (most notably Romance of the Three Kingdoms and the Mahabharata).
And the diversity didn’t stop with classical texts. We also wanted to show our appreciation of voices from many current regions of the world, voices expressing the different ways we all grapple with modernity — which is why you’ll also find contemporary masterpieces such as The Kite Runner, Midnight’s Children, and Angels in America.
Searching for Titles that Reflect the Complexity of Society
Beyond the beauty of the language and an enthralling plot (think of Agatha Christie’s ingenious mysteries), we were also on the lookout for titles that are unafraid to demonstrate the many perspectives that weave together to make our societies.
Often such stories involve challenging existing beliefs in order to bring out different points of view. With this list, you can travel back to the 15th century and see how Christine de Pizan challenged gender constructs in The Book of the City of Ladies, or teleport to a Brave New World where the bliss of consumption and indulgence is pulled back to reveal society’s dark underbelly.
Sometimes such rebellious content can also be accompanied by innovations in literary style. You probably won’t be surprised that we included Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises for this very reason. How could we have resisted this modern classic, with its simple-yet-elegant prose and plotline alluding to the problematic drunken lifestyle of the Roaring Twenties?
Of course, we realized that there were plenty more books that could have been included in this list, but didn’t make it. With a lot of consideration and reluctance, we decided to narrow it down to these 115 titles. It’s by no means definitive; they just happen to fit our criteria the best. Feel free to discuss and suggest other books in the comments below!
Thao Nguyen is a writer at Reedsy, a platform that connects authors and publishers with the world’s best editors, designers, and marketers. She enjoys writing non-fiction, especially the historical kind, and is delighted by the prospects that self-publishing provides for aspiring authors nowadays.
Writing of her spiritual journey, Mary Baker Eddy explains that she “finds the path less difficult when she has the high goal always before her thoughts, than when she counts her footsteps in endeavoring to reach it. When the destination is desirable, expectation speeds our progress.” Her wise words can be applied not only to a spiritual search for salvation, but also to our writing goals. The guidance supplied in this quote can help us battle writer’s block, discouragement, rejection, and the temptation to quit, born of these ills.
My confidence is a pendulum constantly swinging between two extremes: doubt and delusions of grandeur.
I find Mrs. Eddy’s words helpful whenever I feel myself succumbing to the sense that my project isn’t worthwhile–no agent will want to represent it, no publisher will find it marketable, no reader will want to read it. We all face these insecurities. For me, they are as frequent as their opposites: I am writing the next Great Novel. It will become a best seller and a major motion picture. I have something valuable and worthwhile and unique to say. My confidence is a pendulum constantly swinging between two extremes: doubt and delusions of grandeur. While it’s easy to keep writing when the latter thoughts fill my mind, perseverance in the face of such negative self-talk as the former thoughts proves a bit of a struggle.
But keeping Mrs. Eddy’s words in mind helps. For my writing, the “high goal” right now is seeing my novel published. The “high goal” is the satisfaction of knowing something I wrote is making people think and rethink, question and wonder, read and reread. The “high goal” is inspiring new ideas, even long after I’m gone. One current obstacle to this goal: My novel isn’t even finished. But step one is there: I have set the goal (and started writing the novel).
Instead of letting disheartening thoughts of doubt cloud our thinking, instead of wondering why we even bother, instead of letting the footsteps we must take feel arduous and grueling, rejoice in the fact that you are taking the necessary steps towards reaching that glittering goal, whatever it may be.
Of course, setting a goal alone is no guarantee you’ll achieve it. We do have to take “footsteps in endeavoring to reach it.” I like to ask myself periodically what I have done for my writing recently–what have I done to support my high goal? Here are some possible answers:
asked someone to read something I’ve written and provide feedback
actually written a chapter of my manuscript
taken inspiration from nature
listened to Podcasts or read articles relevant to my topic.
It can be easy to get bogged down in counting these steps, as Mrs. Eddy warns against. But when we find ourselves feeling buried by little things, it truly can be helpful to take a step back and remember the bigger picture, the higher goal. Instead of viewing revision as a chore, or dreading working on your project because you’re in the tight-fisted grip of writer’s block, remember that your “destination is desirable,” and the “expectation of good speeds our progress.” Instead of letting disheartening thoughts of doubt cloud our thinking, instead of wondering why we even bother, instead of letting the footsteps we must take feel arduous and grueling, rejoice in the fact that you are taking the necessary steps towards reaching that glittering goal, whatever it may be. Remember that each revision, each belabored chapter rewrite, each late night writing and rewriting–they are all part of the process. Instead of dwelling on each difficulty, take pride in your progress. As long as you don’t lose sight of where you’re going–as long as you keep the high goal always before your thoughts–each footstep takes you a little closer to where you want to be.
I picked up Marjane Ambler‘s memoir Yellowstone Has Teethat the Yellowstone National Park Store in the Bozeman Airport in Bozeman, Montana, back in February when my husband and I made the trip out west with my sister, her husband, and a few friends. Though my aim was to read it before our day-long winter tour of Yellowstone, I kept so busy hiking, snowshoeing, site-seeing, and socializing, that I didn’t begin the book until my husband and I were back home in Virginia. In at least one way, it worked out for the best: Reading this book after my return home allowed me to seemingly extend the trip. Each time I opened its pages, I found myself transported back to the wintry clime of Yellowstone in the snow.
One mark of a really good book is that upon finishing it, you feel a sort of sorrow. Some irrational part of your being hoped you’d be able to go on reading the book indefinitely, despite the dwindling pages behind your bookmark. This was the way I felt when I finished Yellowstone Has Teeth. Luckily, I have a whole cache of books waiting for me to read them, but that was my only consolation. I felt a nagging sadness when I closed the book for the final time. But this was not just because the book was behind me; it was also because (spoiler alert!), as I was finishing the book, Ambler was finishing the cherished chapter of her life that was living in the park. Ending the book this way of course made logical sense, but it was also artful and purposeful. Reading about the end of her time in Yellowstone as I approached the end of my time reading the book resulted in an emotional impact that could not have been achieved had she ended it some other way. Our feelings ran parallel: She was loathe for that chapter of her life to end, and while I commiserated with that sentiment, I also experienced my own grief about ending the book.
If the book’s ending made an impact, its pages did as well. The book explores many intriguing and important issues, including man’s relationship to the natural world, women’s changing role in a male-dominated profession, rugged individualism and independence versus the need for community and interdependence, and man’s futile attempts to control nature, to name a few.
Ambler also does a superb job of illustrating the juxtaposition between the “civilized world,” and life in the park, in statements such as this one: “I read the animal tracks in the snow instead of a newspaper to discover the news of the day” (30). A page later, she describes the way her husband, Terry, would listen to the traffic report in Los Angeles as he drove his groomer down the snow-covered and deserted park roadways. As he heard the radio announcer advise LA motorists to find an alternate route because “‘An accident has stopped all westbound traffic on the Santa Monica Freeway,'” her husband “smiled at the contrast on his roadway. His headlights illumined only bison tracks breaking the surface of the newly fallen snow” (31).
The book explores many intriguing and important issues, including man’s relationship to the natural world, women’s changing role in a male-dominated profession, rugged individualism and independence versus the need for community and interdependence, and man’s futile attempts to control nature, to name a few.
In addition, Ambler’s imagery sticks with you. When writing about the historic fires of 1988, she describes the sky in the following way: “…huge cumulous clouds…boiled over Two Ocean Plateau, the clouds stained red from the fires below, like cauliflower boiled in blood” (148).
In short, I am so glad Ambler sat down and wrote this book. It provided so much food for thought, and so many insights. I can only imagine what a gift it must be to so well–so intimately–know a place so well-known and infamous. Ambler helped me imagine it a little bit better. Now, there are so many people to whom I want to recommend this book. This week, it will be in the mail on its way to Rocky Mountain National Park, where I hope one of my best friend’s best friends, a female ranger in the park, will enjoy it.
I don’t get to read much during the school year (unless, of course, you count the nearly never-ending string of my students’ persuasive essays, journal entries, literary analyses, and research papers). But last month, I spent several hours in the Bozeman airport waiting for my travel companions’ plane to land so we could make the trip to Big Sky together. Though I admit to reading several persuasive essays during my wait (yes, during my vacation…), I also perused the little airport shops.
And I found books. Lots and lots of books.
There were at least a dozen I wanted to buy–and probably would have, if my luggage had not already weighed 52.5 pounds when I left home that morning. I always have a long Summer To-Read List, so this year, though I limited my Bozeman book-buy binge to three books, I decided to get started early. Most nights of the week since I’ve been home from Montana, I’ve been allowing myself 15 minutes before bed to read for pleasure. Currently, I’m about 100 pages in to Yellowstone Has Teeth, and in the beginning chapters of Salt to the Sea, which I’m reading as part of the novel-writing class I’m taking (and loving!) at The Visual Arts Center of Richmond.
Yellowstone Has Teeth, by Marjane Ambler
One of the planned activities I was most excited about during my trip was a day-long coach tour of Yellowstone National Park. I couldn’t wait to see the park and its feature in the snow. The last time I visited, it was summer and I was in elementary school. I was looking forward to the spectacular juxtaposition of colorful hot springs with white snow. I bought this book thinking I’d have time to start reading it before our visit to the park, but all I managed to read during the entire trip were persuasive essays. Still, starting the book once I returned home has been a nice way to savor my memories of our snowy day in the park.
I also bought this book because I love books about people’s lives. I am incredibly nosy about everyone’s routine, right down to the most mundane details, so I’m enjoying reading about how Ambler and her fellow winter residents managed to tote groceries home on snowmobiles, the ways they managed to keep warm, and what their day to day job obligations were.
If that weren’t enough, I always love books about nature. Reading about other peoples’ observations in and connection to nature helps me better appreciate my own time in the out of doors, enhances my own ability to be aware and open and in touch. I enjoy the introspective reverie of one alone in nature.
Salt to the Sea, by Ruta Sepetys
A fellow writer in my novel-writing class who happens to work as a librarian recommended our class read this book as an excellent example of writing craft. It’s a Young Adult (YA) novel about four teens during World War II. So far, it’s an incredibly fast read. It’s riveting. The book is impressively thick, but the chapters are incredibly short and it’s not hard to read several in one sitting–not only because of their brevity, but also because of their pace. The chapters alternate between the perspectives of each of the four characters. So far, each chapter is a first-person account of the same experience or moment.
My To-Read List
A Modern Dog’s Life: How to Do the Best for Your Dog, by Paul McGreevy
You can probably tell from this blog and my corresponding Instagram account that my dogs are a huge focal point in my life, so it’s no surprise that the title of this book caught me eye. It seems to promise A) that will learn about how my dogs experience life and B) that I will learn how to make their lives the best lives possible. I actually came across this book while I was conducting research for an article I was writing for ScoutKnows.com, and when my brother asked me a few days later what I wanted for my birthday, I asked for this book and he delivered. I can’t wait to learn more about my dogs and how to make their lives better, and I have a feeling the information in this book will also help with my writing for Scout Knows.
What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World, by Jon Young
I want to know the secrets of the natural world–and I like birds–so this book seemed like a no-brainer purchase. It’s another that I bought at the Yellowstone National Park Store in the Bozeman airport. I’m excited to read about what I can learn from my backyard birds.
I Am I Am I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death, by Maggie O’Farrell
I haven’t purchase this book yet, but I first heard about it on NPR a few weeks ago, and then read a review of it in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. In both cases, it sounded intriguing and thought-provoking. I have a feeling it will alter my perspective on many things.
Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, by Edward Abbey
I think my cousin Katie originally told me about this book, and it’s another my brother bought me for my birthday. As I wrote above, I love introspective writing like I expect to read here.
Ol Major’s Last Summer: The Story of a Very Special Friend, by Richard Sloan
This is my third Bozeman airport book buy. Each purchase of this book donates money to animal causes, and it’s written by a local writer. Plus–it’s about a dog. How could I resist?
I do expect this book will make me cry, so I have to plan my reading of it wisely.
Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo
One of my best friends bought this book for me for Christmas last year. He hates reading, but this is his favorite book, so it must be good. I’ve actually already read it, but I was a sophomore in high school and remember very little.
The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood
I’m a firm believer in reading the book before seeing the movie (or, in this case, show), but I let my husband talk me into watching Season One of The Handmaid’s Tale before I read the book.
I am also a firm believer that the book is always better than the movie (or the show)–so I have got to read this book. If the show is any indicator, the book must be mind-blowing.
Lastly, the novel I’m currently writing is, according to my instructor, speculative fiction, so I am sure I can also learn something about craft from reading this book.
There is, I think, a general consensus in the writing world that writing necessitates reading. To be a good writer, you must also be a reader. Many well-known adages advocate for this. “And when you cannot write, read” and “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write,” the latter by Stephen King, to name just two. Writing courses also perpetuate the idea, especially beginner courses or courses for elementary-aged students, which often recommend as a starting point the imitation of a certain writer, style, or genre. Truth be told, even in my Master’s program, I was once assigned a certain poet to study and imitate. We are all familiar with the famous works of Anne Lamott (I have my College Composition students read her essay, “Shitty First Drafts,” each semester), Stephen King, and other experts in the field when it comes to our craft. Here, I share in no particular order some perhaps lesser known but nonetheless worthwhile reads for writers. Some I received as gifts. Others I stumbled upon. Still others were assigned reading in various undergraduate and graduate courses I have completed.
2. Room to Write: Daily Invitations to a Writer’s Life, Bonni Goldberg
I recommend this book for anyone who finds herself in front of the blank page or glaringly white computer screen asking, “What do I write about?” only to remain seated, staring, paralyzed, at the same blank page or screen. Every page of the book presents a new writing prompt, for a total of just shy of 200 prompts. Each page is broken into three parts: a brief explanation or introduction, the prompt itself, and a relevant and often enlightening, inspiring, or encouraging quote from well-known writers like Zora Neale Hurston, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and Emily Dickinson.
3. On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, William Zinsser
My favorite thing about this book when I read it as a graduate student a few years ago was its easy-to-read and conversational tone. To this day, I often use Chapter 14, “Writing About Yourself: The Memoir,” to help teach my high school students vital lessons about writing about themselves in the context of the college essay. The writing is accessible and easy to relate to. It is broken into four parts: Principles, Methods, Forms, and Attitudes, with each part further broken down into individual chapters. I recommend this work for writers of fiction or nonfiction. Though it is clearly geared towards nonfiction writers, the lessons presented could benefit any writer.
4. 642 Things to Write About
As with Room to Write, I recommend this book for anyone who thinks he is at a loss for material. It is the perfect weapon against writer’s block. This book is full of blank pages, which might sound intimidating, but on each page is a prompt–or in some cases, multiple prompts. Sometimes, when I feel the urge to write but don’t think I have anything to say, I page through this book until I find a prompt that inspires me, and begin. If your main interest is simply to write, without necessarily studying the craft in depth, this book will help you see exactly how much subject matter you really do have at your fingertips. Your job is to just get it onto the page.
5. The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative, Vivian Gornick
This book provides commentary and instruction on craft, as well as examples of various writing to help illustrate when and how a certain effect or goal is achieved well. It also discusses how to craft yourself into a character/narrator, among other topics pertinent to those trying their hand at personal narrative. It begins with an introduction, and from there breaks off into parts: the essay, the memoir, and the conclusion.
6. Writing Creative Nonfiction, Carolyn Forche and Philip Gerard (editors)
This fascinating book (partly because the genre around which it is centered is so intriguing to me) includes explanations, examples, and exercises in each chapter. The explanations are enlightening; the examples are entertaining, informative, and illustrative (I particularly enjoyed “A Braided Heart: Shaping the Lyric Essay,” by Brenda Miller, a piece that, years after my first reading of it, influences my writing); and the exercises are thoughtful , demanding the participant to do more than just write. For example, one of the first exercises, on page 13, consists of three steps:
Write a short poem about a real-life event, personal or public, that interests you deeply.
In the above poem, identify the Subject that was triggered by the writing.
From the poem, write a piece of creative nonfiction about the same Subject
The completion of this exercise requires much, not the least of which is experimenting with genre–writing about the same topic using two very different genres, poetry and creative nonfiction. You will be amazed at the different lives a piece can take on when written in various formats.
7. Your Life as Story: Discovering the “New Autobiography” and Writing Memoir as Literature, Tristine Rainer
This book, broken into 22 chapters, does exactly what its title claims: Provides an understanding of how to turn your own life into a readable, publishable story.We are all the star of our own plot. This book aims to help you structure it and express it in an artistic, deliberate manner. In addition, it touches on difficult subjects, such as how to write about others, in Chapter 10, “Portraying Others: Casting Your Story From Life.” And, of course, very few writing books would be complete without writing exercises, which this book also includes.
8. Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film, Seymour Chatman
This was one of the most eye-opening books I read during my time as an undergraduate at Michigan State University. I still remember the first epiphanic moment in great detail: I was curled up on a love seat-sized piece of furniture in a sort of common area in one of the science buildings on campus, in between classes. There was not enough time to go home; too much time to go to my next class just yet. My books and backpack and brown-bag lunch were sprawled out on the floor around the over-sized chair where I sat, still wearing my winter coat. In true sophomoric style, I was reading the assigned chapter only so I could check it off my academic to-do list, and not in expectation of gaining any true insight. But the reading I accomplished that day was extremely engaging and educational. It was the first time I truly understood the difference between the author and the narrator. I believe it was Chapter 4, “Discourse: Nonnarrated Stories,” that had this eye-opening effect on me. What impressed me was how Chatman managed to break down and explain invisible elements–things I had taken for granted–of the experience of reading, elements that as writers writing for readers and as readers reading critically, we need to be aware of.
9. Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, Janet Burroway
This book, which contains quotes, explanations, advice, examples, and exercises for fiction writers, consists of nine chapters, beginning appropriately with “Whatever Works: The Writing Process” and ending equally appropriately with “Play it Again, Sam: Revision.” Sandwiched in between are discussions about world building, character building, story form, point of view, time, etc.