Back when I was in my twenties and living in New York, a favorite conversation starter among my friends was: If the apocalypse happened tomorrow, what three books would you save? My first two were easy—the dictionary (preferably Webster’s) and the collected works of Shakespeare. (Size was not a consideration.) Having put in my vote for those two, I let others argue about books on farming and preserving seeds and engineering and basic mechanics.
For lovers of books and writing, what books we surround ourselves with is important. We may, in fits of de-cluttering, shed favorite novels we read twenty years ago and that we know we will never read again, no matter what we promise ourselves. But there are books we keep because we do read them again, even if it’s only a favorite chapter or scene; or, in the case of books on writing, a particular point about character development or inspirational words that will help us to keep going. (A case in point: Anne Lammot’s immortal words from Bird by Bird: “Now, practically even better news than that of short assignments is the idea of shitty first drafts. All good writers write them.”)
In my classes, once a year I hand out an ever-growing list of recommended books on writing. I ask students to send me their favorite titles to add to the list, and frequently the same ones come up. I do get new ones, such as when a student was writing a love story and recommended Elizabeth Benedict’s The Joy of Writing Sex. I do not own all the books on my list, nor do I recommend everything I’ve ever bought or read. But there are several books I unequivocally feel every writer should own, or at least read once. These are books that I do go back to frequently, and that I often draw material from for my classes. Other than the first one, which should be on every writer’s desk, I’m listing them in no particular order. Each one, in its own way, can be as good as any other.
The Elements of Style, William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White
Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott
On Becoming a Novelist, John Gardner
On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, William Zinsser
Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose
Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, Janet Burroway
Steering the Craft, Ursula Le Guin
Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg
On Writing, Stephen King
Moments of Being, Virginia Woolf
What books on writing do you return to again and again?