I think the best way to read is to read for entertainment. A simple illustration of this, in my own case, would be in the fact that I am still able to stay awake into the wee hours of the night if I am reading a novel I like, but even when I was younger and less in love with sleep, could barely stay up past midnight if I tried the same with an academic textbook.
So, when I am asked by people what they should read to improve their language skills—a common question when I was part of a group studying for the B-school entrance exams—or to become better writers, as is more frequent now, I don’t have an honest answer. After all, for me, reading something as a ‘prescribed text’ takes away from my enjoyment of it. I like to think I fell in love with language through reading, and if I write now, it is as an ode to the beauty of words. But that does not take away from the fact that there is much to learn about the craft of writing from those who have come before us, and as a writer I try to glean as much as I can.
Here are some of the books I think a writer must read to expand her understanding of the craft:
- The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe (1843): Poe is the writer who kicked off horror as a serious genre in writing, and with good reason—much of his work is suffused with not just scary elements and gore, his stories have exquisite dramatic tension that keeps a reader biting her nails to the last line. In this short story about a murderer betrayed by his guilty conscience, the way Poe gradually builds up the story, letting the suspense grip the reader until we are in the room with the story’s unfortunate protagonist, has much to teach any writer about how to develop a story in any genre.
- Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott (1868): This post-Civil War novel about the domestic trials and tribulations of four young girls living in New York might feel dated and old-fashioned, but it is a masterclass in characterisation. Long after a reader finishes the book, the characters of Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy—and Laurie and Professor Baehr—remain etched in our minds, distinct and relatable as they are. For learning how to create memorable characters, this beloved classic is worth a read.
- Right ho, Jeeves, by P G Wodehouse (1934): Wodehouse is regarded as the High Priest of comedy by writers and readers in the genre, and any of his works could serve as a prototype, but this one, in many ways, exemplifies the art of dialogue. One of the weakest points of many writers is their inability to write convincing dialogue. In Right ho, Jeeves, dialogue take place through telegrams, in person, and off-the-page but strip away the upper-class affectations of Bertie Wooster and his friends and you have conversations that could well happen in real life even today.
- The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov (1942–1950): Even if you are not a hard-core enthusiast of the Science Fiction genre, there is a lot to learn from Asimov’s world-building. In the Foundation novels, as well as throughout the rest of his considerable body of work, Asimov manages to balance detail with a deft touch. We never feel overwhelmed by the things he tells of the future his stories are set in, but at the same time a reader can fairly quickly form a mental picture of it. World-building is, of course, essential to writing Sci-Fi and Fantasy. But for any book, creating a sense of setting, of time and place without overdoing the descriptions, is very important and Asimov’s work does this to perfection.
- A Case of Exploding Mangoes, by Mohammad Hanif (2008): The dark humour that runs through this book is rich and delicious. Without using difficult language or resorting to heavy-handed posturing, Hanif paints an accurate and frightening picture of Zia’s Pakistan and fictionalizes the events leading to the dictator’s death in a fast-paced cynical satire. For both its simplicity of style and complexity of plot, I would say it is a must-read for writers to learn how to hold a story together with writing that is simple without compromising on quality.
- Jinnah often came to our House, by Kiran Doshi (2015): Writing historical fiction using real-life characters is never easy, but Kiran Doshi in his sprawling tale of pre-Independence India does this masterfully. Apart from this, keeping a narrative interesting even when writing about minor characters, making people who really lived convincing in their human frailty and resurrecting a culture that no longer exists—all are executed brilliantly. The entire book showcases considerable skill in holding a tight story and building up characters a reader can truly care for even in a narrative that spans nearly fifty years and three generations.
- The Dog, by Amy Cross (2016): A story about a zombie apocalypse might seem clichéd, but a good writer must learn to tell even a clichéd story in a way that makes it seem fresh. In The Dog, the entire story of a world that falls and rises again is told through the eyes of a dog. Not once breaking away from a simple, canine, viewpoint, Amy Cross manages to spin a gut-wrenching fable of an innocent animal’s view of the chaos around him. For any writer looking to pick up something about telling stories from a limited point-of-view and keeping the fantastic believable, this is a good place to start.
The author who calls himself Percy Wadiwala is a Chartered Accountant and MBA who quit a successful career as a Banker to spend more time with his cats. Realizing that his cats are much happier without his company, he is now engaged in other pursuits such as staring mournfully at broken glasses, contemplating drying paint and, despite the protests of those who he inflicts it upon, writing.
He lives in Mumbai with his family, his book collection and a firm conviction that modern civilization is in terminal decline.
His first book, ‘The Day Money Died’, is available at Amazon.