The best books against writers’ block

Joseph Leo Koerner Author Of Bosch and Bruegel: From Enemy Painting to Everyday Life
By Joseph Leo Koerner

Who am I?

My father was an artist who painted passionately, almost always outdoors. When I told him I wanted to become an art historian, he was sad partly because he hated art historians, but mainly because he imagined me chained (as a writer) to a desk, rather than marching the countryside looking for things to paint or draw. Like most writers, I sometimes get seriously bogged down, and his sadness comes back to haunt me. But then I pick up a book that, in just a few pages, puts my writing back on track, gladdening my father’s ghost.


I wrote...

Bosch and Bruegel: From Enemy Painting to Everyday Life

By Joseph Leo Koerner,

Book cover of Bosch and Bruegel: From Enemy Painting to Everyday Life

What is my book about?

Paintings of everyday life came from what seems their opposite: the depiction of an enemy hell-bent on destroying us. An absorbing study of the dark paradoxes of human creativity, Bosch and Bruegel is a timely account of how hatred can be converted into tolerance through art. Along the way, Koerner uncovers art history’s unexplored underside: the image itself as an enemy.

The books I picked & why

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After Nature

By W.G. Sebald,

Book cover of After Nature

Why this book?

Prose turned into poetry, history made uncanny, this slim volume by the master of cryptic visual illustration is an incredibly useful prompt for how to get one’s own writing going on a new and stranger track. Along the way, Sebald (author of The Emigrants and Austerlitz) delivers yet another powerful suite of stories entwining art and life.


The Taming of Chance

By Ian Hacking,

Book cover of The Taming of Chance

Why this book?

Are you stuck on a single sentence that keeps expanding but goes nowhere? Then tame it by cutting it down and finishing it off now. Ian Hacking is the master of the subject-verb-predicate sentence in historical writing. And this book, in addition to being a model of stylistic clarity, changes how we think about modernity, mathematics, danger, and risk. You’ll never be afraid of being clear again.


Friends of Interpretable Objects

By Miguel Tamen,

Book cover of Friends of Interpretable Objects

Why this book?

Unable to finish a manuscript? This delicious book came about (I’m told) by accident, when its author, struggling with his vast magnum opus, decided to put it down, almost randomly, into a little book of startling essays. The result is an eye-opening study of how “things” need “persons” to speak on their behalf, becoming personable. Includes amazing insights into iconoclasm, ecological litigation, and the legal fight of Abolitionists. And teaches how to write less, cut more, and edit with creative abandon.


We Have Never Been Modern

By Bruno Latour, Catherine Porter (translator),

Book cover of We Have Never Been Modern

Why this book?

Is it possible to write a sophisticated and high-stakes philosophical tract but remain engaging, accessible, and humorous? Latour shows it can be done. Reading him makes one young and agile again. Along the way, you learn urgent lessons about how to mend the catastrophic mental divide between the human and the natural world. 


The Palm at the End of the Mind: Selected Poems and a Play

By Wallace Stevens,

Book cover of The Palm at the End of the Mind: Selected Poems and a Play

Why this book?

Steven’s poems have the cadence of philosophical argument. Entering into this cadence can raise one’s own writing, and thoughts, to a higher plane, without its becoming flowery or affective. For years I kept this collection open to the poem “The Poems of Our Climate,” with its consolation:  “...the imperfect is so hot in us / Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds."

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