What Makes a Book a Keeper? Part 1

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booksSome books are meant to pass time on my shelves before getting swept into the donation box for the local library or the thrift shop. Others have the distinction of permanent residency on what might be dubbed my “shelf of honor.” Those books are the ones that have somehow made a difference in my life. Maybe they were books that left a profound impression on me through their content and the author’s craft. Or they might be personally and professionally important–those that I had the honor of editing and designing for publication (or even writing), for example, or one that marked a life-passage for me.

Among the books in the latter category is The Turquoise, by Anya Seton, which was published in 1946 for the People’s Book Club by Houghton Mifflin. My mother’s book club membership was one of her few extravagances; books came in the mail regularly and, for as long as I remember, she never gave or threw one away.  The Turquoise was the first grown-up book I read after graduating from Nancy Drew and Candy Kane. Besides being a darn good story, it introduced me to my beloved Southwest and to the genre of historical fiction.

Books that fall into the category of those that made a profound impression on me through their content and the author’s craft deserve recognition. For that reason, I have begun this series of posts spotlighting these important books.

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King

Because I am both a reader and a writer, I’m always on the lookout for books that will both entertain and inform me. I don’t mean to distinguish between reading for enjoyment and reading to learn—they are two sides of the same coin. When I read fiction, I am looking to be entertained and informed. I want the author to tell a compelling story that keeps me engaged, but I also want to learn from the author’s craft. I want her to school me in her particular art of fiction. By the same token, when I read non-fiction, I want the author to keep me engaged while I’m learning, and if he can be entertaining along the way, all the better.

Excuse me while I digress

As a master of compelling fiction, Stephen King is one of the most successful writers of our time. I remember reading Carrie, his first book, when I was a high school English teacher. Whenever I had a student who resisted reading (remember the days of the required quarterly book report?), I could recommend Carrie and, miraculously, the kid would become a reader. I’m not exaggerating; Stephen King’s writing has the power to make non-readers into readers.

I remember a particular student who bragged often and loudly that she had never read a book. She hated reading. She was a bright girl, but she held my book report requirement in disdain. However, it was she who actually led me to Stephen King. One Friday, I took the class to the library to get their books, and I dragged her from shelf to shelf looking for the book. I pulled Carrie off a shelf and we read the cover and the inside book flaps together. She agreed to check it out, but remained skeptical. I asked her to let me know when she had finished because I wanted to read it. On Monday, she brought it back and started looking for books like it. After that, Carrie became my go-to book for non-readers, and it never failed.

Now, back to the subject at hand

Among King’s backlist is On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Published in 2000, it came on the heels of a devastating accident that nearly took his life. He explains in the First Foreward that he needed to tell “how I came to the craft, what I know about it now, and how it’s done.” In the Second Foreward, he says, “This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit…. I figured the shorter the book, the less the bullshit.”

I owe King a debt of gratitude for something he said at the very beginning of the book. He described reading a memoir that recorded everything about the author’s early years—a virtual panorama of events. For him, such detailed memory didn’t exist. He described his childhood memories as a series of snapshots—mostly out of focus. His declaration liberated me from a belief that something was wrong with me because I didn’t have a panoramic memory of my childhood. He gave me the language to understand my own disjointed memories.

He cautions against intentionally setting out to learn craft of writing by reading. (But I do it anyway, and it in no way interferes with my enjoyment of a good story.) He says he loves to read, but he doesn’t read fiction to study the art of fiction, but he acknowledges that there is a learning process going on. He tells us that every book offers its own lesson and that even the bad books have more to teach than good ones.

While much of the book is autobiographical, it is most assuredly not an autobiography—at least not in the normal sense of the word. It truly is about writing. He traces his craft from his childhood compulsion to tell stories and how it evolved over the years. He doesn’t prescribe; he doesn’t say do it this way or that way; he simply shows us his own process with an occasional recommendation. It’s clearly a process that works—something that aspiring writers can learn from and be entertained along the way. It’s a keeper: a book all writers should have on their shelf.

In the next post, I’ll share another title from my “shelf of honor.”