One of my favorite things: when I read a book that transforms the way I see the world, or the way I see the possibilities of writing. Another one of my favorite things: when I convince someone to read one of those books, and he or she loves it as much I do.
So here's a short list of books that transformed the way I see the world. I could go on for pages, but here's a start, and if you're at your bookstore or the library, check these out:
- Christopher Alexander, A Pattern Language. I've never been interested in interior design or architecture, but this book taught me how to be aware of why certain spaces are pleasing—or not. I think about it all the time.
- Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics. I've never been interested in comics, and reading this book didn't give me an interest in comics—but it's a fascinating analysis of art and visual communication, and is itself a perfect illustration of the arguments it's making. Hmmm...this description makes it sound boring, but believe me, it isn't.
- Virginia Woolf, The Waves. This is not a book for everyone. It is demanding. I find it overpoweringly beautiful—really. I love it, but it makes my head explode to the extent that I can scarcely read it.
- Edward Tufte, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. I know, with that title, who wants to pick it up? But this book is brilliant and thought-provoking, and made me understand, for the first time, the power of graphs, charts, and the like.
- Wayne Koestenbaum, Jackie Under My Skin: Interpreting an Icon. This book revolutionized my understanding of how a writer could approach a biographical subject.
- Mark Kurlansky, Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World. I remember picking this up in a bookstore and thinking, wow, you can really do some crazy things with non-fiction. It helped me understand that I could be a writer without being a novelist or a journalist. This sounds obvious, now, but it was a huge realization for me.
- J. M. Barrie, The Boy Castaways of Black Lake Island. A story from which almost everything has been eliminated. Crazy genius.
Looking at this list, I'm fascinated to notice a pattern that I've never picked up before: in all these books, a great deal has been cut out. This is interesting to me, because as a writer, I struggle with the persistent impulse to eliminate, to find structures that permit radical excision. In fact, The Happiness Project is the first major thing I've written that doesn't do this. What's the lesson there? I'm not sure.
How about you? What book has changed the way you see the world? I'm always looking for recommendations, so please send them along.
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