Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Great Novels = Great Inspiration

I recall some of my greatest inspirations during this special holiday season.

There's something about this time of year; I always end up answering questions about why I write—what drives me, what inspires me.

First, I write because I must, because the alternative is unthinkable.  The act of writing is for me a psychological imperative.  I write on paper (or type into a computer file) my thoughts and dreams, joy and anger, fears and aspirations—the process relaxes me.  I pour out my angels and demons onto the page, and thus refresh my soul.

Second, I hope to make a new career of something I love to do.  Which of us doesn’t aspire to that?  I'd write anyway, even if I didn’t get paid for it—but hey, might as well enjoy the best of both worlds.

Third, every time I read a great novel, I can't help but say to myself, "Man, I would love to do that!"  My greatest inspirations are the great novels I've read, many of them twice, some more than that.  Like all writers, I developed my love of words through reading.  Who can write who does not read?  Would you ask someone to sing who's never heard a song?  Impossible.

This seems so obvious, I feel silly even mentioning it.  Yet people ask.  Thus, I will answer the next question, one that inevitably arises from this discussion: Which are your favorite books of all time?

Keep in mind that I have not read many thousands of books, of course, and were I to read all that's available, I might well amend this list.  Nonetheless, one could do far worse on a reading expedition than to start with those on my list.

If I could point to a single thing—one common thread—that all of these great works possess, it would be this: Extraordinary Characters.  Whatever the genre or scope of the story, whatever the artistic style of the authors, each of these books offered me that which I must have to say, "I love this book."  

They gave me compelling characters, with whom I could laugh and cry, fear and rejoice, suffer great sorrow and share true love.  They gave me people for whom I cared deeply.

What greater gift can a writer offer?

If you'd like to share your own list, even if only a few of them, please do so in the comments section.  I've read many books based on the recommendations of friends over the years, including some of those on my "Top 25" list.  Maybe I'll read one of your recommendations and add it to my list.  After all, discovery is one of the great joys of reading.

My "TOP 25" Books of All Time

(As I can't possibly rank them in specific order, I list them alphabetically by author's name.)

Clancy, Tom – The Hunt for Red October
Cooper, James Fenimore – The Last of the Mohicans
Crane, Stephen – The Red Badge of Courage
Dickens, Charles – Great Expectations
Forsyth, Frederick – The Day of the Jackal
Heller, Joseph – Catch-22
Helprin, Mark – A Soldier of the Great War *
Helprin, Mark – Memoir from Antproof Case
Hemingway, Ernest – A Farewell to Arms
Hemingway, Ernest – For Whom the Bell Tolls
Hemingway, Ernest – The Old Man and the Sea
Irving, John – A Prayer for Owen Meany
Irving, John – The World According to Garp
King, Stephen – The Stand
Lee, Harper – To Kill a Mockingbird **
London, Jack – The Sea-Wolf
Ludlum, Robert – The Bourne Identity
Melville, Herman – Moby-Dick ***
Orwell, George – 1984
Rand, Ayn – Atlas Shrugged
Steinbeck, John – Of Mice and Men
Steinbeck, John – The Grapes of Wrath
Tolkien, J.R.R. – The Lord of the Rings ****

* Mark Helprin is not only my favorite author; he's one of the best-kept secrets in the literary world, if conversations with fellow readers are any indication.  If you haven't yet discovered him, you owe it to yourself to do so.
** I long ago ran out of superlatives to describe To Kill a Mockingbird.
*** I list Moby-Dick despite the fact that I could live without about half the first 150 pages.  That's how good the rest of the book is.
**** I can’t help myself; I simply must read The Lord of the Rings every five years or so.  I must.

'Til next time, remember:
To write well, you must work hard.  To succeed in this tough gig, you mustn't be lazy.


  1. Great list. We would appear to have very similar tastes in literature, but I'm not familiar with Mark Helprin's work. I'll have to check him out. If you had to recommend just one of his books, which one would it be?

    Mike N.

  2. Mike N.,

    I would recommend "A Soldier of the Great War" to get started.