I read DBC Pierre’s ‘Top 10 Books Writer’s Should Read’ in The Guardian the other day, (online version here https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/aug/10/top-10-books-writers-should-read-dbc-pierre) and realised, to my horror (not really folks) that I have only ever read one of them, Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’ (and that not in its entirety).
Do I feel diminished by this discovery? Chagrined, Shamed into rushing out and correcting this omission? Nah mate, not really.
The piece is really a cross between a puff for his new book ‘Release the Bats’ and why not – someone has to publicise an authors works these days. That does make me feel less inclined to believe that these books are in fact essential reading for all writers.
One I can see as being useful is ‘The Elements of Style’ by William Strunk Jr and EB White (although I generally dislike books that tell me what style to use – basic grammar is okay I suppose, though I think you should probably know most of the rules you need to follow by absorption). Another is Chambers dictionary, but, in my opinion, only if you haven’t got access to one of the OED’s products.
Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1841) is no doubt a riveting read on common follies, including the Southsea Bubble and Tulipomania but its publication date means it misses many more recent examples. People still fall for pyramid schemes and Ponzi schemes for example, even when they are presented quite clearly in a recognizable chain letter format. I was asked by a friend a few years ago if I thought an opportunity to ‘invest’ £3,000 in a scheme that guaranteed a minimum £20,000 return was a good idea. I said it sounded too good to be true. When I asked for more details it was clear it was a pyramid scheme and the maths were so simple that it was obvious only the people at the beginning of the scheme could possibly make any money out of this. I told her to avoid it like the plague. This was the scheme: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-29250910 . You don’t need to read Mackay to realise that sensible people get carried away by hopes and fears fanned by con artists. I could mention the Brexit vote, but I won’t.
There is at least one other book which is definitely worth a read on his list; F Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘Tender is the Night’. The others are worth a look if you have time but really you could pick a huge number of other books to read which would help an aspiring writer just as much. To be honest reading almost anything is a bonus, if only it makes you think, bl**dy hell I could do better than that!
So while I’d quibble with the content of his list, I’d definitely second the thought that writers should read. Don’t limit yourselves to lists of ‘essentials’ though. If you want to do research, then target that subject specifically. Otherwise, be as eclectic as possible and occasionally pick something you don’t like the look of. It may just open up a new genre or style for you, or it may just confirm your existing prejudices, which may or not be a bad/good thing depending what they are!