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Some non-wine books that influenced me



Forbes’ Cathy Huyghe, who is turning into one of the most interesting wine writers I know of, wrote late last week about the best non-wine books for wine communicators to read. This is a novel approach; we established wine writers often advise younger ones to read classic wine writers like Harry Waugh, Hugh Johnson and Michael Broadbent, but Cathy is exactly right when she says you can be “a better wine writer [by] read[ing] widely and especially outside the category of wine.”

Cathy didn’t list her own reccos (I wish she had) but instead asked others whom she ran into at the Wine Writers Symposium for theirs. (You can read her article here.)

I’m going to offer my own list of non-wine books. I can’t say that they’ll be helpful to all wannabe wine writers, because these things are terribly personal. But I can say that these are books and writers who have been helpful to me, in terms of informing my style and approach.

There’s a sort of truism in Eastern religious philosophy that anyone you meet can be the Buddha, so you’d better pay attention to them all, in case they have something to teach you. I don’t know about the Buddha part, but it’s certainly true of writers. You never know when you’re going to read something that will stay with you for life! Sometimes it’s by someone super-famous; sometimes, it’s someone you’ve never heard of. It’s a mysterious process of osmosis, by which the writer’s style just sort of eases its way into your head. It’s not about copying or plagiarizing or trying to write like someone else; it’s just that something about the writer impacts you in such a profound way that you find yourself “borrowing” some aspect of that writer’s manner or tone. So here are some writers whose works have informed my own writing in important ways.

Winston Churchill. I’ve read pretty much everything he ever wrote, in many cases several times. Churchill had impeccable grammar and sentence and paragraph structure. His sentences were incredibly complex: long and winding, yet as intricately organized as a symphony score. He knew how to tell a story that keeps you on the edge of your seat, in a stately way. He wrote about massively important historical things, yet told them from a personal point of view that makes you feel you were right there beside him. He also was a strong personality who didn’t try to keep his feelings out of his writing, despite a thorough grounding in journalism. Churchill was, in fact, an emotional man, a fact that most people don’t realize. In his epic “The Second World War,” you can feel his emotions—joy, sadness, excitement, anger, disappointment, humor, even a needling sarcasm. He is a joy to read.

Gore Vidal. I put him on my list because, in addition to being a very good, proper writer, he was wickedly funny. I don’t think the word “snarky” existed in his time, but he was witty and stylish, and was able to make history come alive by inhabiting the inner lives of his characters. And he never wrote anything of inconsequence; whatever he wrote brimmed with importance and his own penetrating intelligence.

Celebrity memoirs. I know, I know; it’s undignified to admit I read ‘em and like ‘em. But I do! Some of my favorites have been Nancy Reagan’s “My Turn,” Lauren Bacall’s “By Myself and Then Some,” Jacques Pepin’s “The Apprentice,” J. Paul Getty’s “As I See It,” the Duke of Windsor’s “A King’s Story,” Keith Richards’ “Life,” and Katharine Graham’s “Personal History.” These were all wealthy, powerful people, and I like reading candid books where they reveal personal things about themselves (some of which are not flattering) that show the real human being behind the façade.

I always have a “latest book I loved” whose style definitely impacts my short-term writing and may go on to influence it long-term. I recently finished “The Savage City,” by T.J. English, a book I didn’t think I’d like but did, very much. It’s a documentary of life, crime and racial politics in New York City in the 1960s and 1970s, a period I’m very familiar with. In fact, much of the action takes place in my boyhood neighborhood of the South Bronx. English obviously did a ton of research, paces himself beautifully, and knows how to tell a solid story with dramatic flair. He also writes with masculine power—not afraid to drop an F-bomb here and there, especially when he’s paraphrasing how people really talk. I like that muscular approach.

There is so much more to making a career as a wine writer than just reviewing all the free samples wineries will drop on you.

  1. Steve, where on earth during the day do you find the time to read such interesting books?! I have a book on my bedside table that I am able to read 2-3 pages before I have to turn out the light…but that’s about all the “reading for pleasure” I have time for these days.

    You are a lucky guy!

  2. Regina, I don’t read all those books every day! They’re books I’ve read over many years.

  3. Steve,

    Totally agree on Keith Richards’ book. Was surprised by how poignant his recollections of growing up in post-WWII England were. It’a a really interesting book even before he gets to The Rolling Stones.



  4. Jameson, yes, Keith’s memoir is one of the best rock books ever.

  5. redmond barry says:

    I agree about Vidal ,whose essays are rightly celebrated but whose novels sneak up on the reader with cumulative force that one doesn’t notice until their often very moving conclusions. I’m thinking especially of Julian, Burr, 1876, Lincoln, Messiah, and Creation, though his “entertainments” , notably Myra Breckinridge and The Smithsonian Institution, are crackups. I think he thought he invented snark, if not the word itself. His first memoir, Palimpsest, is near-Nabokovian in the way he teases ” the truth”.
    Great writer and prescient in his analysis of The Empire.

  6. If I might modestly add to the conversation: read the great sports writers. The constraint of operating under a limited number of column-inches of newspaper space each day produced an economy of prose that is exemplary.

    “The Best American Sports Writing of the Century”
    By David Halberstam (Editor), Glenn Stout (Editor)


    A sports writer and novelist whose prose was lauded by Ernest Hemingway was W.C. (“Bill”) Heinz.


    And finally I would add the books by television newsmen Charles Kuralt and Edwin Newman. The limited minutes of air time that the national broadcast networks allotted their essays on the nightly news likewise produced an economy of prose worth studying.

  7. And finally this nomination: the late, great Los Angeles Times sports columnist Bill Murray.

    Quoting the Wikipedia entry:

    “Murray was noted for his great, albeit occasionally caustic, sense of humor and ability to turn a phrase.”


    Winner of the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association “Sportswriter of the Year” award an unprecedented 14 times.

    Winner of a Pulitzer Prize for Commentary.


    A “shout out” to fellow Angeleno and baseball fan Ron (“Hosemaster”) Washam: do you second my motion for Murray?

  8. redmond barry says:

    Murray plays for skins with the gods, but my favorite was Jimmy Cannon.

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