Compiling a “Reference” Library, or Why Writers Should Read and Own Books

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If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.

~Stephen King’s On Writing

Hooray! What could be a better New Year’s Day activity than book shopping? This morning I’m off for the New Year’s sale at my favorite independent bookstore, armed with a list of titles, two gift cards, and a little bit of budgeted spending money. New year, new books. Hip, hip, hooray!

For the curious, here’s what I’m hoping to bring home:

The first five I’ve already read and have been dying to own. The last three have been so highly recommended by so many people that I’m going to take a leap of faith.

See, my normal pattern is to put every book I hear about on hold at the library, read it, and then buy the ones I can hardly bear to return to the library. In other words, I feel like it’s mandatory to own every book that I love. So with the last three above, I’m just trusting that they’re going to be indispensible as well. And once in a while it’s nice to read my own brand new book on a first read rather than a library copy.

[UPDATE 1/2/10: Actual purchases ended up being If I Stay by Gayle Forman, Catching Fire, Shiver, The Dark Divine, Silksinger, and Skellig by David Almond, which was one that the bookseller recommended. They were out of a couple I wanted, but that was better for the budget, and my birthday’s coming up. I also came home with these other recommendations: Fat Cat by Robin Brande, Alanna by Tamora Pierce, Last Night I Sang to the Monster by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, and Hold Still by Nina LaCour. I love independent booksellers! My TBR pile will never run out.]

But that’s sort of a tangent. The real point of this post is this: it’s essential for writers to read and own books!

I almost feel like I’m writing this to my husband in defense of all the money and space I’ve used up on my fiction library, like this is my chance to justify all of that.

So here goes.

One Christmas a while ago, I gave a copy of Life of Pi to my sister-in-law. She’s not an avid reader, but I felt like she’d be somebody who could appreciate good writing when she met it. A little while later she told me this: “Wow. I just read the first few pages, and I feel like now I really get it, like I know what good writing is now.”

Exactly! You have to read good books to know what good books are. And even once you get a feel for what’s involved with good writing, you have to keep reading and keep learning and expanding that definition for yourself.

For example. This week I finished reading The Ladies of Grace Adieu, and I was spellbound. I’ve never been a short story reader, but these short stories had me mesmerized. Susanna Clarke has a gift for storytelling. Even the most minor characters are unique and flawed in interesting ways, and she employs subtleties and implications that make the experience of reading downright gleeful. I learned so much about the craft of writing just by reading it.

But why do I need to own it? Why do I need to take up more bookshelf space when I’m already running short? Isn’t reading it once enough?

Owning books is crucial because great examples from a writer’s genre become that writer’s “reference” library.

Actual reference books, like the kind that describe “how to write”? I own maybe four or five of those. Novels that demonstrate how to write? I own hundreds of those. Those are my “reference” library.

Here’s an example of why. A while ago on Twitter an author I know asked everybody for recommendations of books that alternate between two narrators because the manuscript she’s working on does that. She didn’t ask for books that give directions on how to alternate between two narrators. She asked for books that do it well so she could study and learn from examples.

My “reference” library is what I turn to any time I want ideas of how to manage something well. How do you write a killer first page? Go take your ten favorite books off the shelf and read their first pages. How do you make the voice of your novel come to life? Go pull out books whose voice resonated with you and study them. How do you write a prologue that is also the ending but with a twist that will blow readers away? Go take a look at Water for Elephants.

For me, even though my local library is AMAZING (so good about getting the latest titles right away!), it’s not close enough. When I’m in the middle of writing a scene and I think of something I want to check in a book I’ve read, I want that book to be on my shelf, ten steps away.

So that’s my advice for today: go buy some books!

Never feel ashamed that your house is crammed with them. Never apologize for the weight of them when the movers (or male relatives, or yourself if you’re independent like that) are carting fifty boxes of them to your new larger house once you become rich and famous (ha ha!). This is your job. You are a writer. If you were a chiropractor, you’d have that chiropractic table thing. Dentists have the chair and all the freaky sci-fi-looking equipment around it. You have your books, and they are the mark of your trade. (Plus a laptop or pens and notebooks, but that’s another discussion.)

Oh, and as long as I’m on a soapbox, buy as many books from independent booksellers as you can! Keep the book industry alive. Ask them for recommendations and be amazed at their hand selling prowess. These people know books and love books and deserve to be patronized (hmm, that sounds funny). Buy independent when you can!

And then, the bonus of owning books is that I get to loan them out to friends and spread the joy of reading around.

Why are books essential to you? Which ones have taught you the meaning of good writing? What would your ideal home library be like? Any books on your book-shopping list right now?

Leave a comment!

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12 responses »

  1. This is excellent insight! I’m such a tightwad that I just stick to borrowing from the library or other people. But, you are right–a reference library would be a brilliant resource.

    In art they’re usually called “picture files”, full of textures and reference images and artists we like. I wish you could take pieces of book and put them in a “Writing file”, or something similar.

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  2. Nikki,

    What was the name of the book you were telling me about that starts out with the last page, only without the names of the people? Was it Water for Elephants? I can’t remember, we talked about a lot of books that night! Not that I really need to add yet another book to my endless list of “to buy/to read” but, eh.

    Thank you, BBF!

    Jen

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      • I am such a dork! I started reading this post but then I got all excited to ask you about the Water for Elephants book because I really, REALLY was interested in it. So excited in fact that I didn’t finish reading it. Therefore I didn’t notice that you mentioned it. I am a dork. Have you ever read The History of Love by Nicole Krauss? You must. It is my favorite book in all the land. I feel that you would appreciate it.

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        • Ha ha! I’ve done that. Or else if I force myself to read the whole post, I often forget the comment I wanted to make, like that I love the name of your blog: Manipulated Ink!

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    • Okay, just remember to read all the way to the end. Usually I tell people not to force themselves to finish a book they don’t like, but The Thief is an exception. Don’t decide whether you like it or not until you get all the way to the end. Trust me on that!

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