Read Widely, or Becoming a Better Writer by Reading

book collageAnd reading for pleasure. This piece first appeared, in different form, on TheSocietyPages.org‘s Editors’ Desk.

Read Widely

In case it’s hard to tell, that’s an imperative, not a descriptor.

See, many authors ask me for examples of how to incorporate a lot of information into something that’s thorough, academically sound, and engaging. It’s a tough balance, to be sure, but over the years, I’ve collected a number of books (and this is by no means a list of all of them) I can hand off as representations of that ideal. They likely have nothing to do with your area of study, but watching the authors’ deft hands at work (and knowing there are surely unsung editor elves in there, too) can be a truly enjoyable homework assignment. Think of it as “authorial excellence by osmosis.” Absorb and emulate these ten fine examples.

  1. Martha A. Sandweiss. 2009 (paperback out in 2010). Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line. Penguin. Sandweiss usess demography, history, and Census data to trace a prominent man’s journey back and forth from the worlds of white luminaries (he was the playboy head of the National Geographic Survey) and black Pullman Porters (in which he was a simple man with a wife, kids, and a job that required a lot of travel). It’s a fascinating true tale that reveals the permeability of 19th and 20th century color lines.
  2. Mary Roach. 2004. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human CadaversW.W. Norton. Roach has a particularly well-honed touch with science, and is the author of other notable Norton books Packing for MarsGulpBonk, and Spook. Each is packed with information you didn’t know you craved, but here you are, gobbling up the details of what cadavers have done for you lately, just how astronaut food is developed, and why it’s hard to describe tastes. Stiff is an excellent introduction into her excellent catalog, packed with participant-observation, rigorous research, in-depth interviews, and no shortage of good humor.
  3. Adam Gopnik. 2010. Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern LifeVintage/Knopf Doubleday. I like to think of Gopnik as the master of final sentences. He can close a paragraph, a chapter, or a book like no other. Doing it in the service of a parallel tale of Lincoln and Darwin, two surprising contemporaries, Gopnik shines. He gives us history, law, theology, and sociology and brilliantly renders a time of modern upheaval, in war and words.
  4. Steven Johnson. 2007 (reprint edition). The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic—and How It Changed Cities, Science, and the Modern World. Riverhead Trade. Epidemiology, sociology, and mapping shouldn’t make for a gripping tale with life and death consequences, but that’s the talent of Steven Johnson. He traces the sleuths who mapped and interviewed and walked their way through London in search of a killer disease and finally put an end to a public health nightmare, and every bit of it feels vital.
  5. Bill Bryson. 2003.  A Short History of Nearly Everything. Random House. Bill Bryson could—and should—write the phonebook and make it into a hilarious, informative page-turner. His romp across Australia (and through its flora, fauna, and fascinating history), In a Sunburned Country, passes out of my hands with astonishing rapidity, but it’s A Short History that most highlights Bryson’s talent with insurmountable tasks. He explains scientific progress (and the unsung scientists who move it forward) with care and humor and a brisk pace that’s nearly alarming. His At Home is another classic packed with millennia of culture and human behavior, but I’d happily point anyone to any one of his books. Random House: do whatever you can to keep Bryson on your roster. I suggest Scrooge-McDuck-piles of money.
  6. Susan J. Douglas. 1994. Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media. Three Rivers Press. A professor of communications, Douglas used her first book (named one of the year’s top ten by NPR in 1994) to take seriously all that pop culture others at the time were ignoring. ’50s girl groups, Gidget, vacuum cleaner ads, and beehives weren’t, in her view, the things that kept feminism at bay, they formed the incubator from which a new generation of feminism and social change would arise. Or: why shimmying to “Will He Still Love Me Tomorrow?” was—and remains—a feminist act.
  7. Erik Larson. 2006. Thunderstruck. Broadway Crown Trade GroupA totally spellbinding book about the development of wireless telegraphy? That’s a tall order, but with Larson’s trademark ability to weave two stories together (in this case, the race to establish overseas telegraphy and to solve a London murder), Larson creates a coup. It’s a potboiler with morse code—even if you try to read it just for the sensationalist murder details, you’ll find yourself taking sides in scientific debate.
  8. Florence Williams. 2012. Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History. W.W. Norton. This book left me like a teenager: both fascinated by and terrified of breasts. In fact, the science surrounding this functional, titillating, contentious body part left me so utterly freaked out I forced myself to stop reading the book, out of the very real knowledge that continuing might lead me down a certain paranoid path wherein I could no longer look at paint or hold a water bottle. Williams is incredibly talented and I can’t wait to see what she takes on next. Also: the book may be worth the price of purchase for the aforementioned Mary Roach’s back-cover blurb alone.
  9. Joshua Page. 2011. “The Toughest Beat”: Politics, Punishment, and the Prison Officers’ Union in CaliforniaOxford University Press. Full disclosure: not only am I married to the author of this book, I edited every word of it—and there are probably still typos lurking within. The reason I want it on this list, though, is not simply out of affection or pride, it’s because the author is a true demonstration of how to be edited in the service of a great book. That is, he cares more about the finished product than the first draft. And that finished product has won awards and created comment among policy makers, union leaders, lay readers, and even one of Rolling Stone’s Top 100 guitar players. It’s worth checking out.
  10. Michael Pollan. 2008 (reprint edition). A Place of My Own: The Architecture of Daydreams. Penguin Books. [Originally published in 1998 as A Place of My Own: The Education of an Amateur Builder by Dell.] Some books have seasons, and I return to this one every spring. Yes, Pollan’s much better known for his screeds on food—the history of it, the best ways to source it, the best way to eat it—but this elegant little book explores the traditions of culture, architecture, and the act of writing, letting readers dabble with shipbuilding and concrete construction, feng shui and barn-raising right along with him. The book itself is a dream made sturdy.