One of my favorite things about a well-written story is its ability to quietly sneak into your brain and never let go. It burrows in, makes itself comfortable, and doesn’t allow you to ever fully leave the world the author created for you. It’s an exhilarating and wonderful thing, not being able to stop thinking of a story once you’re done with it. After finishing a book or poem that I love, I often find myself scribbling lines onto sticky notes and hanging them around my office, house, or car so I may momentarily leave reality and rejoin the wonderful, enchanting land in which my head still frolics.
The greatest privilege of a writer is the responsibility to take words in their most basic formula (Noun Phrase + Verb Phrase = Sentence) and craft them into something entirely bewitching—something that automatically transports readers into an otherworldly place.
If you follow me on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook, you’ve no doubt noticed that I love posting great lines from literature. I feel it’s important to recognize and share excellent writing. For today’s post, I’ve captured 12 passages from novels or poems that take my breath away. What about you—what quotes from literature leave you speechless?
Do you have a favorite line you’re dying to tell me about? I’d love to hear it! Please share with me and your fellow readers in the Comments section below or on my Facebook page.
Earlier today, I read one of Raymond Carver's great stories, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” The title of this story always amuses me, and with Valentine's Day steadily approaching, it seemed appropriate to discuss it.
In Carver's story, four friends drunkenly sit around and swap their accounts of love---horror stories about suicidal exes, words of affirmation to their current spouses, philosophical descriptions of exactly what love is to them. By the time the gin runs out and the story ends, the characters sit in silence, unable to produce any further thoughts on the matter. It's a quiet, dignified exit that sticks with me as much as the title.
And this silence, my friends, is exactly what we talk about when we talk about love. It's a glaring inadequacy to generate the words to describe exactly how love makes us feel.
But my god, don't we as writers try our best? In fact, I'd go as far to say that every story revolves around love. Sure, they aren't all dripping in romantic moonlit walks and roses, but I believe that every author pours so much of their soul into their work, no matter the genre, that the sheer passion makes every word pulsate with love. At the heart of all literature is a writer who longed to let a story free. The person at the beginning of those words wrote everything they knew, experienced, or dreamed about---and they dedicated months or years of their lives trying to perfect the words. If that's not love, I don't know what is.
And it's not necessarily all for the reader. In my experience, the entire act of writing is inherently selfish. There is something inside of us boiling so fervently---fear, passion, betrayal, insecurities---that it must be unleashed or we'll likely implode.
Reading stories through this framework makes them so much more interesting to me. Faulkner's As I Lay Dying transforms from a tale of calamity to a migrating love story of husband and wife. Ginsberg's seemingly random poems become monolithic odes to the writers and countries he loved, and the family torn away from him. Even Horton Hears a Who by Dr. Seuss is a loving nod to all marginalized and forgotten creatures.
Even if they're not explicitly discussing romantic themes, love lies in the subtext. Did they capture those feelings successfully? That's up to you as the reader to decide.
What do any of us talk about when we talk about love? We experience feelings so intense that people dedicate lifetimes assigning words to them. And even then, language often fails to capture what's in our hearts. But it's our mission as writers, and more importantly, as humans, to never stop trying.
“I could hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone's heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark.”
- Raymond Carver, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”
It's official. There's just too many good books in the world.
If you were to ask me my 10 favorite books, I'd stumble for a bit, and then sheepishly request a few more hours to give you a proper answer. Even within one genre, I can think of 10 books that I love and would reread to the point that their spines gave way.
And that's the beautiful thing about books. The magic that one book contains differs greatly from another written by the same author or about the same subject.
So instead of taking on the impossible task of listing my favorites, let me tell you about the ones that inspired my writing in one way or another. I hope that some of you out there have read and enjoyed these as much as I.
Just Kids by Patti Smith
Seriously, guys, if you haven't read this book, drop what you're doing and go get it now. Okay, well maybe wait until you're done with this post, but seriously, get it. Just Kids is the memoir of famed queen-of-punk Patti Smith. The book is a beautiful mix of memoir and poetry. Smith, a poet herself, masterfully weaves together stories in a way that's minimalistic but rich at the same time.
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
I'm going to be honest and say that I'm actually still in the middle of this one. How I've made it through an entire liberal arts education without picking this up is beyond me. Despite the fact that I've yet to complete it, it absolutely warrants a spot on this list. King uses the book to provide advice to writers the best way he can---by telling stories of his own life. Never have I wanted to pick up a pen and start writing so badly as during this book. As a hardcore fan of King's books, it's also thrilling to read the origins of some of his biggest hits, including Carrie. It's an enriching reminder that some of the best stories originate in your own experiences.
The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin
Okay, this might seem like a little bit of an odd choice, but I read this book so quickly, I felt like the pages were going to catch fire. Rubin's book focuses on a self-discovery project where she tried to make herself as happy as possible for one year via measurable standards and tasks. The reason I find this book inspiring (besides the fact that I'm a sucker for a good self-improvement tale)? Rubin manages to take scientific thoughts, statistics, and methodologies and make them addicting. That is a skill to be admired.
Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
I won't bother to summarize this classic, as I'm sure (and hope) you're all familiar with it. Besides the fact it's simply a great piece of children's lit., I admire Sendak's ability to succinctly create a world and fill it with lovable monsters. There are no good guys or bad guys---we're all just Wild Things at the end of the day.
Helter Skelter : The True Story of the Manson Murders by Vincent Bugliosi, Curt Gentry
Helter Skelter tells the story of the famous Sharon Tate murders by the notorious cult leader Charles Manson. Written by the lead prosecutor on the case, Vincent Bugliosi presents a horrific event in a very detailed, enthralling light that reads almost like a novel. Bugliosi's true-crime narrative was my first venture into crime writing, and I often return to it when I'm in need of a little spark.
Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach
I feel like any of Mary Roach's books belong on this list, but Stiff in particular deserves recognition. Roach manages to write about a normally squeamish, taboo subject in as normal a manner as talking about your weekend plans. This book made me think that I could be a non-fiction writer, and also convinced me to become a whole-body donor through the University of Minnesota (also, PSA: Save lives and be an organ donor, folks!)
The Lorax by Dr. Seuss
As with Where the Wild Things Are, this pick doesn't require much introduction. Seuss was an immense talent at crafting stories using bizarre sentences, words, and rhymes. The Lorax happens to be my favorite of his, and it began my fascination with children's literature.
Hart Crane: Complete Poems and Selected Letters by Hart Crane (Author), Langdon Hammer (Editor)
During college, I took an American Poetry class that changed my life. Our professor journeyed with us while we read some of the great American poets---Dickinson, Whitman, Ginsberg, and the list goes on. None, however, opened my eyes to the beauty of poetry like Hart Crane. Immediately after our session on Crane ended, I ran to the library and picked up this behemoth of a collection. For my love of reading and writing poetry, Crane deserves credit.
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
True story: I actually started a list while reading Lolita of all the words that I had never heard before. This list is extensive, and I still don't know what most of them mean. Nabokov's controversial book uses some of the most beautiful language I've yet to read, as well as the greatest opening line in literature. One of these days, I'll revisit that list and learn all of those lovely words.
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Okay book snobs out there, hear me out on this one. Yes, I know that the story is eerily similar to Battle Royale, but I'm asking you to ignore that for the time being. The Hunger Games made the list simply because it had all the ingredients of a bestseller: complex yet approachable writing, an epic battle, and engaging characters. Collins creates intricate worlds and complex human and social dynamics, and does so it effortlessly.
My list of inspirational books could go on forever, but I won't bore you with that. Instead, I'd love to know what books inspired you in any aspect of your life! Please leave me a comment with your thoughts.
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Writer, editor, and storyteller living in the Twin Cities.