John Hart’s Top Ten Reads
As a novelist, one of the great ironies and frustrations of life is that I am rarely able to read as much as I’d like. Strange, I know, but there’s a reason for that, and the cause is unavoidable.
Many qualities contribute to the creation of fine writing, and one of the hardest to quantify is commonly known as “voice.” For me, this is the feel, the tone, the rhythm, the very heart of creative writing. If there is, indeed, a path to the author’s soul, this is it. Countless choices. Endless nuance. It’s what separates the great from the good.
I make no claims of greatness, mind you, but I know it when I see it. In the crime space, I think of Dennis Lehane, James Lee Burke, Thomas Cook. In more literary works, I picture Pat Conroy, Thomas Wolfe, Truman Capote. These observations are personal, of course, as they should be. My particular problem is that, in reading such authors, I tend to internalize their voices and then bastardize them. This is purely unintentional, and flattery of the highest order. A great voice seeps into me as I read; it affects my own work. I refer to the phenomenon as “voice creep” and suspect I’m not the only author who suffers from it. It may sound small, but consider the potential problems. If I read a dozen books while writing my own, I might easily corrupt an entire novel with a dozen different voices. I know for a fact that this can happen. I’ve lived it.
What, then, is the solution? When writing a novel, I read works as different from my own as possible. That means nonfiction, historical fiction, science fiction. Then, in the time between my own novels, I go deep in the genre. Crime novels. Thrillers. Mysteries. It’s made reading habits—once entirely predictable—into a hodgepodge of different tastes and preferences. Please bear this in mind when perusing the list of books I recommend. Some I read long ago, and others I return to time and again. All are by great writers. All are spectacular.
My Top Ten, in no particular order:
The Dog Stars by Peter Heller – An epic tale of survival, brutality, and adaptation to a changed world, this is also a beautifully crafted, post-apocalyptic love story featuring a man, his dog, and the world’s last flying machine. One of my favorites reads of all time.
The Courage to Write by Ralph Keyes – This is a must-read for writers of all stripes, especially for those still struggling to find success. For nonwriters, it offers a fascinating glimpse into the struggles and triumphs of writers who weren’t always so famous.
The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy – I believe an early critic called this book a great thundercloud of a novel, and I’d say that’s a fair description. Raw, personal, and filled with childhood destruction, this is the quintessential family drama, especially for those who appreciate a southern flavor.
Sycamore Row by John Grisham – In this revisitation of characters first drawn in his debut novel, A Time to Kill, Grisham shows he hasn’t lost a step after three decades at the top of his field. Highly recommended.
The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon – Pulitzer Prize. Enough said.
In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick – One of my absolute favorites, this deeply researched tale of courage, cannibalism, and survival at sea is the definitive look at America’s first known instance of a whaling ship sunk by the whale it hunted. Some say the sinking inspired Herman Melville to write Moby Dick.
1776 by David McCullough – No one else can make the birth of this great nation read like the finest thriller ever written.
Deliverance by James Dickey – Still a standard bearer. Read it, even if you’ve seen the movie.
Mystic River by Dennis Lehane – My first Lehane read, and so well done I almost quit writing my first novel in the certainty I could never compete. Talk about voice!
The Lost City of Z by David Grann – A true story about exploration, forgotten worlds, and one of the toughest men who ever lived.