The Brilliant Writer Reading List

'Readers make writers and writers make readers.'—Carl McKeverClick To Tweet

Reading is arguably my favorite activity in the whole wide world. In 2018, I read 144+ books, in 2019, 124+, and I have often received questions about how I read/write so much.

There’s no secret. I take the time to read, and often re-read books immediately after finishing them, in order to take detailed book notes on the most interesting books worth remembering.

Over the years, I’ve probably read thousands upon thousands of books of all stripes—biographies, novels, business books, textbooks—in totally different genres. Reading books has changed my life and greatly increased my skills at thinking and writing, and I believe it is a necessary practice for every writer.

Here, I have compiled a list of the most valuable and influential books I’ve read over the years—books that have improved my life, and hopefully will improve yours too.

And remember to sign up for the monthly Reading List email which recommends a new set of fascinating, helpful, life-improving books each month!

Books to Better Your Life

'Reading is essential for those who seek to rise above the ordinary.'—Jim RohnClick To Tweet

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl is one of the most memorable Holocaust memoirs I’ve read (and I’ve read plenty). Why? Because author and psychologist Frankl doesn’t just talk about his experiences surviving a concentration camp, he describes human nature, hope versus despair, the meaning of life and suffering, the power of family and having a life mission, and the foundations of logotherapy, the idea that man is driven by a search for meaning, not a quest for power or pleasure, as other previous psychologists have claimed.

Start With Why by Simon Sinek is a powerful book for any writer, creative, or entrepreneur. People who create art often lose their way when it comes time to reaching their target audience, and/or forget why they began their project in the first place once they become successful. Sinek’s book will help you clarify your WHY before you begin, or remind you of it once you have begun, so that you will remain sharp and effective as you continue to invent, innovate, and create.

The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss contains several idea gems, but the one that stood out to me the most was the concept of short-term experiments. In his book, Ferriss argues that creating 3-6 month “dreamlines” is far more effective than setting 5-year goals. Within these not-too-long-but-not-too-short time periods, you can accomplish massive results by narrowing your focus and working toward one objective, then stepping back to evaluate and shift gears as needed when time’s up.

Boundaries by Henry Cloud and John Townsend is a wake-up call for those who have been struggling with saying no to the wrong things and yes to the right ones. In this book, psychologists Cloud and Townsend reveal the principles for building and keeping healthy boundaries to protect your health and relationships, using anecdotes and lessons learned from their decades of working with patients and people from all walks of life.

The Bible has been the foundation of English language and literature for centuries, and has shaped the thoughts and lives of world-changing figures such as Abraham Lincoln (US president during the American Civil War), Martin Luther King, Jr. (leader of the American Civil Rights movement), William Wilberforce (abolitionist who successfully ended the slave trade in England), and scores of others. If you want to truly understand great American and English writers’ and world-leaders’ history, thoughts, and writing, you absolutely have to read the Bible. You can easily find free versions of it online, but I recommend getting your hands on a hard copy to write on.

Other potentially life-changing books

Writing Must-Haves

'I read a book one day and my whole life was changed.'—Orhan PamukClick To Tweet

Story Genius by Lisa Cron literally changed my life as a writer. Before a friend recommended this book to me, I’d been a multi-year participant in National Novel Writing Month, churning out 50K-word manuscript after 50K-word manuscript…without ever completing a full novel. But after reading Story Genius and implementing her strategies, I was able to write “The End” on my very first novel EVER. If you want to write a novel and don’t know where to start, read this book—you won’t regret it.

The Bullet Journal Method by Ryder Carroll revolutionized my journaling and life organization. As a writer, I used to be in a constant chaotic frenzy, coming up with great ideas and writing them all over the place (then promptly forgetting where I wrote them). Carroll’s book showed me a simple, powerful way to organize my ideas, my thoughts, and my life, increasing my productivity and reducing my stress levels.

Contagious by Jonah Berger is a thoughtful look at the top 6 principles of virality, recommended to me by my own writing teacher. What makes products and ideas catch on? How does a creative successfully spread the word about his or her work? Berger addresses these questions and more in his book. Although this book is written more from a general marketing angle, the powerful principles within it are extremely helpful and relevant to writers who want their ideas and words to spread.

The Elements of Style by Strunk & White is a classic guide for all writers. The authors, big believers in the power of precise, accurate, easy-to-read writing have written a book that is itself precise, accurate, and easy-to-read. I have kept this pocket-sized book with me for over a decade. It’s one of the foundational texts for teaching writers about usage, composition, form, and style.

Other notable books for writers

Biographies & Memoirs

'The reading of all good books is like conversation with the finest (people) of the past centuries'—DescartesClick To Tweet

Unbroken by Lauren Hillenbrand is one of those real-life-is-crazier-than-fiction stories about the incredible life of Louis Zamperini. Zamperini’s story was eventually made into a movie directed by Angelina Jolie in 2014, but you have to read the book to grasp the full, awe-inspiring tale. This impeccably researched and well-written book actually tells TWO miraculous stories: 1) the story of the former Olympic runner and WWII veteran who survived 47 days adrift at sea, then two years in a Japanese POW camp with a sadistic guard, and 2) the unspoken story of the  author herself, who crafted this epic biography while battling a crippling illness which kept her nauseous and almost completely bedridden during the entire writing process.

Desmond Doss In God’s Care: The Unlikeliest Hero and Congressional Medal of Honor Recipient by Frances Doss is the unbelievable true story of the ONLY conscientious objector to win the Medal of Honor for acts of extreme courage during WWII. Bullied during military training because of his unusual beliefs (including the refusal to carry weapons), army medic Doss later single-handedly saved the lives of 75+ fellow soldiers under enemy fire, stepped on a grenade to save his comrades, and gave up his place on an army stretcher to another wounded man—crawling 300 yards under enemy fire with a broken arm and leg to safety. Doss’ incredible exploits were made into the movie Hacksaw Ridge in 2016, directed by Mel Gibson, who had to cut out some of Doss’ story because he was afraid they were “too amazing to be believed.” The book I linked to here is written by his wife Frances, who was not a writer. But even so, his story spoke for itself. A more polished rendition of Doss’ story can be found here.

Captive by Ashley Smith tells the riveting story of a young, drug-addicted widowed mother whose life changes in an instant when she is randomly chosen as a hostage by a prison escapee and murderer. Over the course of one harrowing night, Smith connects with her kidnapper, eventually convincing him to let her go to her daughter and turn himself in peacefully to the cops. As she works to save her life from imminent danger, Smith also reflects on her broken past and finds the strength to change her own life, forever.

How to Be Like Walt by Pat Williams is a detailed biography of one of the greatest creatives of all time—Walt Disney. In this biography, Williams leads readers through Disney’s life, describing how he overcame massive setbacks (including betrayals by his friends and workers, rapidly advancing technology, World War II) to revolutionize the entertainment industry and create one of the most positive, influential creative empires on the face of the planet. At the end of each chapter, Williams distills core principles and life lessons from Disney’s experience for readers to focus on and apply to their own lives.

Other notable true stories

  • One Light Still Shines by Marie Monville is the harrowing account by the widow of the Amish schoolhouse shooter, in which the author describes how she came out of unspeakable tragedy and learned to live on.
  • Out of a Far Country by Christopher and Angela Yuan is a memoir cowritten by a mother and son who tell the story of the son’s descent into and return from rebellion and drug-dealing debauchery through the power of unconditional love.
  • Answering the Call: The Doctor Who Made Africa His Life is the fascinating story of Albert Schweitzer— polymath, organist, writer, and physician who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952 after devoting his life to serving the sick and the poor in French Equatorial Africa (now Gabon, West Africa).

Timeless Novels

'There is more treasure in books than in all the pirate's loot on Treasure Island'---Walt DisneyClick To Tweet

Ben-Hur by Lew Wallace is an epic tale about a Jewish boy, betrayed by his Roman best friend who works his way agonizingly up from slavery to a position where he can exact revenge on his former friend…only to meet a mysterious leader who threatens to turn his plans for vengeance upside down. Ben-Hur was made into a movie in 1959, and is still well known today for its epic chariot racing scene.

The Chronicles of the Kings series by Lynn Austen is an impeccably researched historical fiction saga of the ancient Israelite king, Hezekiah, and his efforts to restore his nation after becoming the ruler at age 25. Although the leader of a tiny, weak nation, Hezekiah finds the courage to stand up to the world leader at the time—the Assyrians—with the help of his trusted Chief Engineer Eliakim ben Hilkiah, and accomplish feats of defensive engineering that visitors can still see today if they travel to Israel.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is a classic novel about racism, growing up, and integrity under fire. Told from the point of view of five-year-old Jean Louise (Scout) Finch, the novel follows Scout as she grows up in Jim Crow Alabama and learns what it means to stand for the truth against peer pressure as her lawyer father defends a wrongly accused black man in a racist town. Like many classic stories, Mockingbird was also made into a movie and Broadway play.

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo is a book whose title literally means “The Miserable Ones,” in English. This timeless novel set during the June Rebellion in Paris tells the story of an ex-convict’s redemption, as he transforms from a hardened criminal to a wealthy inventor, compassionate mayor, and the adopted father of an abandoned little girl. In 1980, the talented Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil transformed Les Mis into an epic musical that was made into a film in 2012.

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas is a revenge-adventure novel based on a true story. The novel recounts the tale of Edmond Dantes, a man who is falsely accused of treason and thrown into jail for twenty years. When he emerges, Dantes is a wealthy man (thanks to the discovery of a hidden treasure), bent on revenge against the men who stole his life, and his fiancee, from him.

Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen is the classic romantic comedy about love and family written by an 18th century writer with a keen eye for the absurdities of human nature. The story describes the love-hate relationship between lively Elizabeth Bennett and her brooding suitor Fitzwilliam Darcy. Though their story starts out with dislike-at-first-sight, the main characters eventually see through each other’s exteriors to love the person inside…while constantly dealing with their troublemaking friends and relatives. All of Austen’s books are worth a read, but P&P is arguably her most famous novel, with multiple television, theater, and film adaptations including a clever YouTube web-series by Bernie Su (The Lizzie Bennet Diaries).

Other notable novels and authors

  • Restoration Chronicles by Lynn Austen is another stunning historical trilogy by this gifted author, this time about Israel’s return from Babylonian exile.
  • Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game is the epic beginning to a popular science-fiction series about a group of children trained in outer space to protect the world against an invader alien species.
  • The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky is a hefty novel ostensibly about three brothers and the mysterious patricide of their father, but really serves as a vehicle for Dostoevsky to explore deeper philosophical themes about family, life, faith, and meaning.
  • Little Lord Fauntleroy by Frances Hodgson Burnett is a less well-known classic novel about the power of positive expectations. A grumpy old landowner gets a new perspective on life when his kind-hearted long-lost grandson comes to live with him.
  • Silas Marner by George Eliot is a short novel exploring what “real treasures” mean. When a miser’s hoard is stolen, he inadvertently adopts an abandoned toddler who changes his life.
  • Daddy Long-Legs by Jean Webster is an epistolary novel (a novel written in letters) about young orphan Jerusha Abbott who attracts the attention of a mysterious benefactor (the eponymous “Daddy Long Legs”) who pays her way through college.

Children’s books

'Children's books speak 'a language of absolute sincerity, so deliciously countercultural in our age of cynicism'--Maria Popova' Click To Tweet

Hope Was Here by Joan Bauer is the down-to-earth story of a teen waitress who moves to a rural city in Wisconsin with her aunt, after being cheated out of their life savings. And while there, she becomess involved in a local political campaign against the corrupt mayor. Check out Bauer’s other books as well! Her style is perfect for readers who admire earthy, wholesome stories about young teens who are passionate about what they do, be it waitressing, growing pumpkins, selling shoes, or playing pool.

The Sammy Keyes mystery series by Wendelin Van Draanen is a creative series about a gutsy teen detective who solves crimes while dealing with middle-school drama and family issues. The genius of the Sammy Keyes series is how the author manages to tie together multiple riveting storylines with a generous helping of humor, and an overarching mystery about Sammy’s mysterious family. Sammy Keyes was one of my middle-school role models, with her cleverness, courage, and unceasing joie de vivre.

The Blue Castle by LM Montgomery tells the story of Valancy Sterling, the mousy daughter of an oppressive clan who finds sudden freedom when she is diagnosed with a fatal heart condition. Tired of living under her family’s thumb, Valancy resolves to move away and live the life she’s always dreamed of. But when a life-changing secret is revealed, will Valancy lose her freedom once again?

Holes by Louis Sachar is the cleverly-plotted story of Stanley Yelnats, falsely accused of robbery, who is sent to the Camp Greenlake corrections facility in the middle of the desert. There, the past and present collide as Stanley gets to know the other boys in the camp while they dig  holes in the hard ground (Camp Greenlake’s form of character-building), and resolves a long-ago family curse.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl is the classic children’s novel about a young boy who wins a golden ticket and a tour of the local magical chocolate factory, along with four other children. As the children and their guardians follow the eccentric chocolatier Willy Wonka through his factory, child after child drops out for various reasons until Charlie ends up winning a prize he never expected. The book was hugely popular and eventually made into a movie by Tim Burton.

Flushed by Carl Hiaasen is an environmental awareness novel about the adventures of a brother-and-sister duo who fight against a local casino boat which has been emptying its septic tank into the ocean water. Accompanied by a cast of quirky characters, the siblings devise a plan to reveal the wealthy casino owner’s dastardly deeds before they run out of time.

Other notable children’s books and authors

NOTE: The above links direct people to Amazon and are Amazon affiliate links.

Other Lists of Books From Me

'Once you have read a book you care about, some part of it is always with you.'—Louis L'AmourClick To Tweet

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