Sunday, September 13, 2015

Books We Read, Books We Use

                                                                     Milton C. Toby photograph
By Milton C. Toby

Writers write. It's what we do.

Writers also tend to read, a lot.

One of the secrets to writing well is recognizing good writing by others. I read mostly nonfiction these days because that's what I write. I finished David McCullough's The Wright Brothers a few days ago and was enthralled by his story of Wilbur and Orville and the early years of aviation. McCullough doesn't write about horses but he has won two Pulitzer Prizes and a National Book Award and his work is a good model for any nonfiction author.

I'm now working my way through Ed Moloney's A Secret History of the IRA, trying to sort out the politics of the the "Troubles" in Northern Ireland as part of my book proposal research into the theft of the Thoroughbred stallion Shergar. The "Shergar shelf" in my office keeps growing, occupied with the few books already written about the horse and hundreds of clippings from old newspapers and magazines.

I don't read much current fiction unless Daniel Silva or John Sandford has a new book. More often than not when I need a dose of fiction, though, I'll pick up an Arthur Conan Doyle volume and reread a Sherlock Holmes story or two.

Our house is littered with books--real books, not even counting the ebooks on my Kindle. They are arranged neatly on shelves or in precarious stacks in my office, in the bedroom, in the spare bedroom, in the living room, in the dining room, in the kitchen. And then there are the boxes of books gathering dust in the attic and in the garage. Most of them have been read once, and probably won't be picked up again except when dusting the shelves or rearranging the stacks.

A few books, on the other hand, have migrated through frequent use from the shelves and stacks to a place within easy arm's reach in my office. These are the reference books that I use over and over again, often on a daily basis. In no particular order, here are my top-10 go-to books when I have a question about definitions, word origins, or the mechanics of writing:

1. The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary in two massive volumes
2. The Elements of Style by Strunk and White (three editions)
3. The Chicago Manual of Style
4. The Associated Press Stylebook
5. The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable
6. Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words
7. The Writer's Legal Companion
8. The Oxford Desk Dictionary and Thesaurus
9. The Copyright Permission and Libel Handbook
10. Bartlett's Familiar Quotations

None of these are "writing books" as such. They don't deal with plot, or characters, or dialogue, or the other creative elements we usually associate with good writing. They are essential reading, though, if you need help putting together a query, or a proposal, or a manuscript that is both technically correct and likely to satisfy a publisher's guidelines.

An added--and somewhat unexpected--benefit: A few of the books go beyond dry reference and are fun to read. The Elements of Style, The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, and Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words, for example, all manage to be both informative and entertaining.

Besides, where besides Phrase and Fable are you going to find the origins of the "trilby hat," the headgear of choice for James "Jazzer" Murphy, the detective in charge of the Shergar investigation?

What reference books do you use on a regular basis?

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