“When, during the course of an interview for The New Yorker, I told the interviewer (Mark Singer) that I believed stories are found things, like fossils in the ground, he said that he didn’t believe me. I replied that that was fine, as long as he believed that I believe it. And I do. Stories aren’t souvenir tee-shirts or Game Boys. Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible. Sometimes the fossil you uncover is small; a seashell. Sometimes it’s enormous, a Tyrannosaurus Rex with all the gigantic ribs and grinning teeth. Either way, short story or thousand page whopper of a novel, the techniques of excavation remain basically the same.” (Stephen King’s manual On Writing)
The writer as a paleontologist leads me automatically to the fish paleontologist Neil Shubin and his famous book ‚Your Inner Fish‘ in which he says that every reptile, bird and mammal alive today is descended from ancient fish.
Sure enough, in 2004, scientists found one of those transitional species: Tiktaalik roseae, a 375-million-year-old Devonian period specimen discovered in the Canadian Arctic by paleontologist Neil Shubin and his colleagues. Tiktaalik, explains Shubin on the latest episode of the Inquiring Minds podcast, is an „anatomical mix between fish and a land-living animal.“
„It has a neck,“ says Shubin, a professor at the University of Chicago. „No fish has a neck. And you know what? When you look inside the fin, and you take off those fin rays, you find an upper arm bone, a forearm, and a wrist.“ Tiktaalik, Shubin has observed, was a fish capable of doing a push-up. It had both lungs and gills. In sum, it’s quite the transitional form.
And now, PBS has adapted Your Inner Fish as a three-part series (you can watch the first installment here), using the irrepressible Shubin as a narrator who romps from Pennsylvania roadsides to the melting Arctic in search of fossils that elucidate the natural history of our own anatomy.
„Many of the muscles and nerves and bones I’m using to talk to you with right now, and many of the muscles and nerves and bones you’re using to hear me with right now, correspond to gill structures in fish,“ explained Shubin on Inquiring Minds. Indeed, despite having diverged from fish several hundred million of years ago, we still share more than half of our DNA with them.
„The genetic toolkit that builds their fins is very similar to the genetic toolkit that builds our limbs,“ Shubin says. „And much of the evolution, we think, from fins to limbs, didn’t involve a whole lot of new genes.“
I first discovered Stephen King at age 11, indirectly through a babysitter who would plop me down in front of daytime soaps and disappear. Bored with One Life to Live, I read the stacks of mass-market paperbacks my absentee guardian left around—romances, mysteries, thrillers, and yes, horror. It all seemed of a piece. King’s novels sure looked like those other lurid, pulpy books, and at least his early works mostly fit a certain formula, making them perfectly adaptable to Hollywood films. Yet for many years now, as he’s ranged from horror to broader subjects, King’s cultural stock has risen far above his genre peers. He’s become a “serious” writer and even, with his 2000 book On Writing—part memoir, part “textbook”—something of a writer’s writer, moving from the supermarket rack to the pages of The Paris Review.
Few contemporary writers have challenged the somewhat arbitrary division between literary and so-called genre fiction so much as Stephen King, whose status provokes word wars like this recent debate at the Los Angeles Review of Books. Whatever adjectives critics throw at him, King plows ahead, turning out book after book, refining his craft, happily sharing his insights, and reading whatever he likes. As evidence of his disregard for academic canons, we have his reading list for writers, which he attached as an appendix to On Writing. Best-selling genre writers like Nelson DeMille, Thomas Harris, and needs-no-introduction J.K. Rowling sit comfortably next to lit-class staples like Dickens, Faulkner, and Conrad. King recommends contemporary realist writers like Richard Bausch, John Irving, and Annie Proulx alongside the occasional postmodernist or “difficult” writer like Don DeLillo or Cormac McCarthy. He includes several non-fiction books as well.
King prefaces the list with a disclaimer: “I’m not Oprah and this isn’t my book club. These are the ones that worked for me, that’s all.” Below, we’ve excerpted twenty good reads he recommends for budding writers. These are books, King writes, that directly inspired him: “In some way or other, I suspect each book in the list had an influence on the books I wrote.” To the writer, he says, “a good many of these might show you some new ways of doing your work.” And for the reader? “They’re apt to entertain you. They certainly entertained me.”
10. Richard Bausch, In the Night Season
12. Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky
13. T. Coraghessan Boyle, The Tortilla Curtain
17. Michael Chabon, Werewolves in Their Youth
28. Roddy Doyle, The Woman Who Walked into Doors
31. Alex Garland, The Beach
42. Peter Hoeg, Smilla’s Sense of Snow
49. Mary Karr, The Liar’s Club
53. Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible
54. Jon Krakauer, Into Thin Air
58. Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It and Other Stories
62. Frank McCourt, Angela’s Ashes
66. Ian McEwan, The Cement Garden
67. Larry McMurtry, Dead Man’s Walk
70. Joyce Carol Oates, Zombie
71. Tim O’Brien, In the Lake of the Woods
73. Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient
84. Richard Russo, Mohawk
86. Vikram Seth, A Suitable Boy
93. Anne Tyler, A Patchwork Planet
Like much of King’s own work, many of these books suggest a spectrum, not a chasm, between the literary and the commercial, and many of their writers have found success with screen adaptations and Barnes & Noble displays as well as widespread critical acclaim. For the full range of King’s selections, see the entire list of 96 books at Aerogramme Writers’ Studio.
More than merely resurfacing the discourse on gun control, the recent tragedy in Newtown illustrated the futile ebb-and-flow of these debates as school shooting after school shooting shakes the nation yet fails to bubble up into actionable government policy. So argues Stephen King in Guns — a short Kindle e-book in which the celebrated novelist brings his uncompromising lens, at once passionate and rationally composed, to the issue of gun violence in America. He argues that while the mere presence of guns may not be a direct cause of violence, access to them in a formidable enabler of existing problems and pathologies in perpetrators who might not otherwise resort to outward violence, harming many.