Ask Agatha: What are the best books about writing?

Our wise bookseller Agatha answers all your tricky questions. If you have a question for Agatha please email

What do I get my mother-in-law for Christmas? She’s a high school English teacher and loves reading - but she’s usually always read something before me so I find it tricky to get her something new.

I see two options here….

The first would be to choose a book that is ‘hot-off-the-press’ so that she simply doesn’t have enough time to get there first. As Christmas is a while away (around 6 weeks) you may need to wait for the December releases to roll in. Some upcoming literary reads to watch out for include a new novel by Japanese author Haruki Murakami (The Strange Library), a previously-unreleased novel by French author Georges Perec (Portrait of a Man) and a ‘fictional biography of sorts’ about Eduard Limonov (Limonov by Emmanuel Carrèrre).

(If your mother-in-law is partial to biographies, take a look at The Secret History of Wonder Woman which is written by Jill Lepore, a staff writer at The New Yorker, and a quirky choice for literary readers.)

Your second option would be to track down a book that would have likely slipped her notice. Some beautifully-crafted, quiet literary reads which we felt were overlooked this year include Life Drawing by Robin Black, The Tribe by Michael Mohammed Ahmad and Family Life by Akhil Sharma.

I’m doing NaNoWriMo this year, mostly just for fun and to get back into the swing of writing again after many dormant years. I love the advice sections and pep talks that the NaNoWriMo website provides, which makes me think it’s time for me to read a book about writing. Any suggestions?

There are hundreds of writing advice books available out there in the world, and so the decision of which book to choose can be overwhelming. I’m going to make things easy for you by narrowing it down to the two books I always recommend to aspiring novelists.

The first is Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott. This book is wise, gentle, funny and profound. It will help you find your way out of a plot that has gotten lost and make you feel better about your insecurities and failings (both as a writer and as a person!).

The second is On Writing by Stephen King, which is both a fascinating glimpse at King’s life as a writer and a wonderful instructional manual on writing.

These are two of the finest writing advice books available, and they’ve helped me through many a writing crisis. I hope they do the same for you.

I keep sharing amazing books with my friends but I find a lot of them don’t end up reading them, despite keeping a hold of them for several months! How can I trick them into reading my recommendations sooner?

This is a common complaint for all of us here at Readings, not to mention, for book-lovers the world over. One of the best things about reading a great book is talking about it with someone else who’s read it, and it can be excruciating waiting for that someone to appear. The best thing you can do is to try remember how much pleasure is found when reading a book at exactly the right time. Try to be patient, and let your friends come to your recommendations in their own time.

However… If you really can’t wait, why not suggest a roadtrip and conveniently forget to bring any music - except for this great audiobook you have just right here in your hand?

We’ll be publishing Agatha’s next column on Tuesday 25 November. All questions answered on our blog will be kept anonymous and questions will be chosen at Agatha’s discretion.

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Stephen King

$22.99Buy now

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