First, I have to admit something about myself. I am a book snob – deeply, fundamentally and absolutely. I have stopped seeing more than one man when finally seeing his home and finding not one single bit of reading material, not even a Playboy, in evidence. Books have played such an important part of my life, I can’t imagine being that person that has no books.
Secondly, I know my reading preferences run toward the Western Hemisphere and the Judeo-Christian perspective. It’s what I know. I’ve tried to expand my base knowledge but I haven’t read enough to form a confident opinion on what is central to say, Arabic or African literature. I keep my ignorance hidden by keeping my mouth shut on those subjects.
Thirdly, every journey into new territory, including good writing, needs a road map, sometimes several and a foundation, references understood, allusions to bring meaning to things you otherwise may miss.
These are the basics:
*A decent, unabridged dictionary; I like Webster’s or American Heritage; FYI, American Heritage has more naughty words in it
*Roget’s Thesaurus; accept no substitute
*Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations
*As much Shakespeare as you can stand; at the very least the major tragedies, a few comedies and histories and the sonnets
*The Bible; yes, I know but hear me out; read it as literature, prose and poetry; The King James version was written in the same general time period as Shakespeare was working and you can win lots of trivia battles knowing which phrases came from which source; if you are interested in an ecumenical translation that is less lyrical but more understandable with excellent scholarly essays to go with, I recommend the Oxford NRSV with Apochrypha, College Edition
*The Elements of Style by Strunk & White; I believe this book along with The Bible is the most purchased, least understood, least applied book in the United States; why do I include a book about writing in a list about reading, because it will help train your brain to recognize good writing, know when to stick with something and equally, recognize what is sub-par and to be tossed across the room.
Before you even ask, no the digital versions of any of these do not count. Without these things laying around the house, how does anyone ever lose an hour amazed at all of the words that begin with zy-? Or how many quotations are now attributed to people who were already dead when the words were supposedly said? How can you mark off words as you learn them? Listen, get them. An afternoon at your local Goodwill, thrift store and/or used bookstore will get you every bit of this for under $20, probably under $10 in some places and you would have more to read than you could probably finish in the next year.
This is where we start, with a decent vocabulary, decent understanding of literary allusion, theme, etc., from ancient and centuries old texts, a little inspiration and the best guide to basic writing skills ever written.
Now go get them. I’ll wait.