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May 19, 2014

Top 5 Classic Novels Every Young Writer Must Read --- Guest Post by Kerri Majors


This is an old fashioned list, and I’m as surprised as anyone to have written it, since I have been squarely a modern-writing type as of late --- my memoir, THIS IS NOT A WRITING MANUAL: Notes for the Young Writer in the Real World (TINAWM) is all about the last 25-ish years of my life, and the urgent concerns of young writers right now

But when I sat down to write a list of just “5 Novels Every Young Writer Must Read,” I found myself listing all old books.  Classics.  Because they have stood the test of time, for plenty of good reasons.  I know that’s kind of a crotchety idea, and I liked THE HUNGER GAMES as much as the next guy, but when I thought hard about “every writer,” and “must read,” these were the titles that came to mind because they are touchstones and rites of passage.  Reading them will infinitely broaden your artistic horizon, and enable you to talk intelligently to artists of any age, even if you don’t actually like the books.  

Some of these are still on high school reading lists and curriculums, and some of them aren’t, but even if you know you’re going to have to read it for a class, read it on your own first, then read it again in the class.  Reading a classic more than once will give you a far better grasp of the craft that went into making it, deepen your understanding of its themes and maybe even change your mind about it.  (In fact, if you happen to be a teacher reading this --- I wish I thought of this list before, because I would have included it in the Teacher’s Edition of TINAWM.  Well, consider this an extension and bonus!)

THE GREAT GATSBY by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I first read this book the summer after eighth grade because my mother told me it was one of her favorites, and because she said it was “a very grown up book.”  I only understood about half of it at that time, but I was dazzled nonetheless: The parties!  The people!  The prose!  When I read it again for US Literature my junior year, I really got much of the book --- the infamous carelessness of the characters, the messy metaphor of the green light at the end of the dock, the backdrop of the Roaring Twenties, Prohibition, and all that chimerical glamour.  I’ve read the book countless times since then and seen deeper and deeper meanings in it (for a short book, it’s remarkably layered), and it’s the only book I’ve read more than three times voluntarily, and will re-read again.  It’s fun and smart; no mean feat.  It’s also one of those books every writer reads; your friends will actually discuss it at parties.  The Baz Luhrmann movie version was good, but no substitute.


The title says it all, right?

MOBY DICK by Herman Melville

Okay, I hated it (let’s just say I’m not the seafaring kind), but many of the smartest people I know don’t, and if you’re going to be a writer or any kind of artist, it’s one of those books people are going to expect you to have read.  And even though I hated it, my inner writer was still able to appreciate the craft of the story, the richness of the psychology and the boldness of the style.

THE SCARLET LETTER by Nathaniel Hawthorne 

This is double-barreled historical fiction at its best: a novel about an important time in American history (colonial), written at a critical time in literary history (transcendental).  It manages to tell a completely gripping story at the same time that it educates the reader.  It’s also the prototypical love triangle of most major thrillers: one cowardly lover, one strong and independent, one murderous and rage-filled.  Take it to the beach.

LITTLE WOMEN by Louisa May Alcott

Men-artists, you need to read this one, too. It’s written by the first important American woman writer, and among other things, it’s about one woman’s journey to become a writer against the historical odds, and you don’t want to ignore that, otherwise your woman-artist counterparts will correctly assume you care less about female artists than male.   Also, reading it will give you just about the clearest, tenderest, smartest glimpse into the minds and hearts of young women that you’ll ever get. 

Kerri Majors is the author of THIS IS NOT A WRITING MANUAL: Notes for the Young Writer in the Real World (Writer's Digest Books, July 2013). She is also the Editor and Founder of YARN, the Young Adult Review Network (, an online literary journal of YA short stories, essays and poetry, which won an Innovations in Reading Prize from the National Book Foundation. Kerri's short stories and essays have appeared in journals such as Guernica and Poets and Writers. She has an MFA from Columbia and lives in Massachusetts with her husband, Mike, and their daughter.