As a writer, it’s a requirement to keep one’s skills honed. To quote a master of modern fiction, Stephen King, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write. Simple as that.”
My reading stack is mountainous. Books I want to read, books others want me to read, books fellow authors want me to beta-read, and books my wife wants me to read, which deserves a separate category since it’s usually non-fiction (insert gag reflex). I don’t hate non-fiction, mind you, it just isn’t on my priority list. Unless it’s research for a novel, or a good science article, the real stuff bores me fast.
To quote Mr. King again, “Reading a good long novel is in many ways like having a long and satisfying affair“. Given the occasional stink eye I get from my wife, one wonders if she views my writing muse as the other woman in that satisfying affair. I don’t know what she’s worried about since it’s all in my head.
Do you see the boy in the graphic above wearing glasses by a window on a rainy night? That was me. I was a middle child of seven, geekish, card-carrying four-eyes by age ten, preferred loner – you get the drill. My second home was the library in small town Wisconsin. That’s where it all started.
Having finished the science fiction novel, I’m between projects at the moment, struggling to decide what to write next while beta-readers dissect the last story with gallons of virtual red ink. To keep from lying awake all night, or biting my nails to the quick like an expectant father, opening a new book hijacks the mind to undiscovered realms. Reading let’s me explore someone else’s muse.
What do I like to read? Since I just flogged non-fiction as worse than liver, it’s a sure bet that I like fiction. I write fiction because I like to build my own world. I read fiction because I like to see how others build their own world. If you’ve got some time on your hands, I posted most of the books I’ve read over the years on my Goodreads Profile.
Last year, a group I belong to asked what my top ten all time favorite authors are. No easy chore, I selected authors who affected me more fondly than others.
In alphabetical order.
- James Clavell – I read ‘Shogun‘ while living in the Philippines as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Living in Asia during the seventies gave it special meaning, and I became hooked on everything Clavell wrote. I credit the desire to embrace foreign cultures to his books. The chance came in 1997, where I embarked on a ten-year stint in Singapore and Taiwan.
- Michael Crichton – Especially intrigued by life sciences in high school, ‘Andromeda Strain‘ introduced me to a bold new world of futuristic thrillers involving engineered pathogens. Crichton’s books were always richly researched and fast-paced. My favorite of Crichton’s is ‘Timeline‘, where time travelers go back to 14th Century France to rescue a professor.
- Ken Follet – Where Clavell may have set the bar for historical thrillers, Ken Follet took it to a new level with a 12th Century monk’s drive to build a cathedral in a two book series, ‘Pillars of the Earth‘, and ‘World Without End‘. Follet spares no ugliness in the oft-violent world of the European Middle Ages, but he balances it with the hidden beauty of a simpler time. Follet is must reading for anyone world-building in this time frame.
- Robert Heinlein – I was ten when I first read Heinlein’s ‘Tunnel in the Sky‘, about a futuristic final exam for advanced survival that goes wrong and students become castaways in an unknown universe. Must have read it a dozen times as a kid, and I credit Heinlein for starting me on the sci-fi highway, absorbing every novel the man wrote. ‘Podkayne of Mars’ remains a favorite.
- Robert Jordan – Author of the ‘Wheel of Time‘ series, no one (except maybe George R.R. Martin), paints a complex fantasy world like Jordan. Admittedly, Jordan wandered inside his plot line as the series grew, and had a tendency for diarrhea of the word processor when drafting a scene. Jordan died before he could finish the series. Jordan’s wife tapped fellow fantasy author, Brandon Sanderson, to bring it all to a close with Jordan’s notes. I loved the damned series, and the awesome cover designs by Darrell K. Sweet.
- Stephen King – Believe it or not, King is another key author in my life discovered while serving in the Peace Corps. Try reading ‘Carrie‘ beneath a mosquito net, to the sounds of a sweltering Philippine barrio night, and not get the shivers. I’ve read most of his works, but ‘The Stand‘ remains my all time favorite, an apocalyptic tale that started my love affair with all things dystopian.
- Barbara Kingsolver – When asked who my favorite literary fiction authors are, Kingsolver is first on the list. ‘Poisonwood Bible‘ stands out as her most notable, and ‘Animal Dreams‘ a personal favorite, but it was the more recent ‘Flight Behavior‘ that resonated with me. A story of a potential ecological disaster involving Monarch butterflies , a small town, Appalachian mother’s life is irrevocably changed inside an arena of political, climatological, and religious interests.
- Dean Koontz – My first Dean Koontz novel was ‘Lightning‘, a story of a young girl’s rescue from a man who appeared on the heels of a lightning bolt. Like Stephen King, Koontz has the ability to write stories that appeal to sci-fi, fantasy, and horror aficionados. Koontz can breathe life into characters like no one else.
- Kim Stanley Robinson – A recent entry to my top ten list of favs, Robinson was recommended when I lamented the glut of space operas, and I’d had enough of Einstein-bending captains traveling over light speed and evil lizard-like aliens. I started with a recent novel, ‘2312‘, in a future of colonized planets within our own solar system, enhanced humans, and the dark element of Artificial Intelligence. Not an easy read, Robinson keeps it real by adhering to the established tenets of Einstein and Hawkings, yet offers new ideas of what the future may hold for mankind. I just finished an earlier novel by Robinson, ‘Aurora‘. Awesome.
- J.R.R. Tolkien – What can I add that hasn’t already been said. Another pivotal series in my adolescent years that began with ‘The Hobbit‘, you can’t really get a feel for the richness of Tolkien’s epic fantasies in the movies. You can’t call yourself a Tolkien reader unless you’ve read his other works, like ‘The Silmarillion‘.
I read Neal Stephenson’s ‘Seveneves‘ last month, another mind-bending futuristic tale of human extinction averted by seven women who become seeds of the new humanity after 5,000 years. Might need to start a top fifty list.
I’m a lot older now, but I’ll never grow out of that bespectacled child by the window, or tented beneath the blankets with a flashlight (because I was supposed to be asleep). One more King-ism for you, “Books are a uniquely portable magic.”
While others sigh in boredom on a long flight, or fall asleep during a movie on their smartphone, you’ll find me immersed in the portable magic of a good book, followed by a WTF expression when we land with – “we’re here already?”