The Top 25 Writers: 5-1

Twenty-five people or groups. Twenty-five of my favorites. Of my most revered. These twenty-five entities would make up my dream cocktail party. They would write the story of my life in twenty-five brilliant chapters.

They have taught me how to read, to write, and to understand the power of the written word.

5. J. K. Rowling
Personal Defining Work: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
A few years ago, I remember telling someone – in a drunken state, I’m sure – that J. K. Rowling might be the most important writer of our generation. Yeah, I said that. And I stand behind it. No one has gotten more children to read than Rowling. And a certain percentage of that group will grow up to be readers and writers, and they will remember their first favorite book being a sometimes scary, sometimes beautiful novel about a wizard boy that goes through the same adolescent changes and choices that each young reader did. And that’s what I mean by importance.

4. Blake Schwarzenbach
Personal Defining Work: Orange Rhyming Dictionary
Schwarzenbach started his musical career as a three-chord, punk god with Jawbreaker, never needing to construct anything more complex than a three-minute song about boats. What he eventually morphed into, especially with his last band Jets to Brazil, was a lyrical master, able to throw an idiom on its head and twist a commonly envisioned scene into a dark, brooding puddle. No other lyricist in my collection has done more to turn a phrase in such an entertaining way, comparing the bitter feelings of lost love to being tied to a chair, the shitty song on the radio, or a name he had never really fit into. Thank you, Blake, for allowing punk to be smart.

3. Nick Hornby
Personal Defining Work: High Fidelity
Hornby came to me first in movie form – High Fidelity, of course. From there, I branched out. I read Fever Pitch – his great journal on loving a sport too much. Then, I read High Fidelity the book. And on, and on. Hornby is at his best when he’s morphing himself into someone else’s voice – a teenage girl, a mother with a vegetable-state son, a feuding married couple. He’s literary without being too off the wall. He says “quit a book if you don’t like it.” I’ve stolen a lot from him, and since that still seems to be the most often used form of flattery, I’ll stand behind everything I’ve stolen – from book columns to a pseudo-love of soccer.

2. Bill Bryson
Personal Defining Work: Notes from a Small Island
Four years ago, I was in Omaha for a wedding. I was just two years removed from an England trip that, without claiming hyperbole, changed my life. Kerrie and I went to a bookstore and I poked around the “travel reading” section, looking for something to read. I saw Bill Bryson, and I saw Notes from a Small Island. I read it. And suddenly, just like that, I wanted to write. It rekindled every jones I once had for writing, and Bryson made it look all so easy. Really, Bryson’s travel memoirs boil down to “a sometimes cranky guy goes to some other country and writes about the funny things that happen.” It’s a genre that has been packed in recent years with authors that are either too serious or too boring. Bryson has, thankfully, refrained from doing either.

1. John Steinbeck
Personal Defining Work: East of Eden
This should come as no surprise to anyone who reads this blog. As far as writers go, this Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winner created some of the most finely crafted fiction – all of it steeped in the history and non-fiction of the Salinias Valley in California – by writing about the simple beauty of life. From the treacherous journey across the United States in The Grapes of Wrath, to the unfiltered debauchery in Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row, Steinbeck brought the lives of real people into the forefront, idolizing and turning them into heroes. His work smacks of the common human experience, and his themes were often borrowed by Woody Guthrie and Bruce Springsteen to create emotional, working class music. Sure, it’s an obvious choice, one with little surprise and no originality. But there’s no one better.

This was lovingly handwritten on September 22nd, 2006