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Reading for Writers

I submitted this post for Nathan Bransford’s guest blog contest, but since it wasn’t chosen, I’m printing it here. I think it’s fitting after all the great books people suggested in the comments on the Contest post. Speaking of the contest, if you haven’t taken part yet, follow this blog in the sidebar to the right and then click here to tell me your favorite book. Contest ends at midnight tomorrow! (Wed)

There are many theories about what writers should or shouldn’t read. Some say you should read everything you can get your hands on in the genre in which you’re writing. Others say you shouldn’t read books in your genre at all, so you won’t be influenced by another author’s style of writing. There are whole books dedicated to the subject, like Francine Prose’s Reading Like A Writer.

I read for several reasons:

1. For the sheer pleasure of it. Books are why I became interested in writing. Stories that I read as a child, like “The Most Dangerous Game” by Richard Connell are what made me want to write. Today, although I’ve completed a memoir and am beginning a book of nonfiction, I still read fiction—for the joy of it. I read for prose like this: “The moon lowers itself, sitting for a few moments on the shoulders of a western butte, considering the lake of shadows. In its distant, porous memory, the moon can conjure up how it pulled the ice back like a bedsheet, exposing the tender ground beneath” from Jo Ann Beard’s The Boys of My Youth (If you haven’t read this, go out and buy it right now!).

2. To become a better writer. (See number one). I learn from both good writing and bad. I mark up the books I read, highlighting sentences I love, like this one from Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Again, if you haven’t read this, run out right now and buy it! Or download it onto your e-reader!): “All I wanted to do was dance. What I got instead was esto, she said, opening her arm to encompass the hospital, her children, her cancer, America.” This is a fabulous book, fabulous enough to win Diaz a Pulitzer.

3. To learn. There’s nothing I love better than a novel that not only entertains me, but teaches me something about the world, about the human condition, or about myself. This line from Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone summarizes the meaning behind “Abu Kassem,” a Middle Eastern folktale about a man who could not get rid of his own slippers: “The key to your happiness is to own your slippers, own who you are, own how you look, own your family, own the talents you have, and own the ones you don’t. If you keep saying your slippers aren’t yours, then you’ll die searching, you’ll die bitter, always feeling you were promised more.” I love that. And I love my old slippers.

4. To feel like I’m not alone. I lived abroad for the first seven years of my adult life, and during that time, I was often very lonely. When I had no one to talk to and couldn’t afford international calls home, I took refuge in W.H. Smith, the English bookstore in Paris. There I sought out “friends,” narrators and characters I could relate to, so I wouldn’t feel so alone. Kerewin in Keri Hulme’s The Bone People and Ishmael in Daniel Quinn’s novel by the same name became my friends. More recently, Anne Lamott, author of Operating Instructions, was my friend as a recovered from giving birth for the first time and struggled to breastfeed and change diapers at 2 a.m.

There has been a lot of talk about the demise of the publishing industry lately, but I won’t have any of it. I love to read. It’s my greatest pleasure after sniffing my babies’ necks (Is that weird?) and getting a good night’s sleep. And I know I can’t be the only one out there who loves a good story, who is tickled by a particularly fitting metaphor, and who sometimes needs a good friend.

What about you? Why do you read? And what relationship does your reading have with your writing?

7 comments to Reading for Writers

  • Hehe, my post didn't get chosen for Nathan Bransford's contest either. I really liked yesterday's, though.

    Personally I do believe that writers SHOULD/MUST read. Otherwise how will you ever learn what works and what doesn't? There are very few people (if any) born with instincts strong enough to do it without "studying" first. And to the writers who are afraid of losing their voice, I say, Silly! You don't lose your voice by talking to people, do you? It's more or less the same thing. In fact, aspiring writers used to learn the trade by IMITATING their predecessors. It's a very recent, copyright-induced paranoia thing to be so afraid of resemblance.

    Of your list, I've only read Oscar Wao, but that line from Boys of My Youth is lovely! And I've heard great things about Jo Ann Beard.

  • I want to read your guest post! Will you post it on your site, or do I have to sift through 125 other posts to find it? 🙂

    I totally agree with you about studying other writers. And I love Jo Ann Beard and wish she'd write another book!

  • I haven't read anything you mention. I read for all the reasons you mention. Sometimes I focus on one reason more than another. For example I'll read a kind of trashy book for the sheer pleasure of it, and then sometimes I'll read a book because I feel like I should in order to understand the popular references to it (Eat, Pray, Love is a good example….I might not have read that otherwise for a variety of reasons, but I probably will now so I can understand references to it. That, and I probably WILL enjoy it.)

    I really love sniffing my baby's neck too, and I also love looking at his round little baby face features. That is why parents spend money on those Disneyland silhouette things–because you want to see your gorgeous child's face in profile while they're young.

  • Meghan, you may have already read it since it was only last week:

    I revised it a bit but pretty much it was that one. 🙂

  • I love love love reading and refuse to stop out of paranoia. I am definitely paranoid that I'll accidentally crib something that I read without realizing it, but I just do a very careful edit looking for anything that might not be my original voice, and I also have several other people read it to help increase the odds of spotting something. It's really annoying that this is even a consideration, and that I can't use phrases that have become part of my speech patterns because I developed them from reading an author several times. I'm looking forward to the day when everything is in a massive database and we can run a plagiarism checker to make sure we didn't accidentally lift someone's words.

  • Just stopped by and have to say, I love the layout of your blog!

    And number 2. You are so right. Stephen King is a huge proponent of reading in order to make yourself a better writer. I definitely believe it myself. Otherwise, it's remaking the wheel while stumbling around in the dark trying to find a hammer.

    And thanks for the reminder of The Wondrous…I've heard that so many times, I've got to get it.

  • Jackie – I've had that happen, where I wrote a sentence and then thought, "Wait, did I read that somewhere?" I bet there are a lot of people who come up with the same phrases independently, though, so a database would drive me crazy. Years ago, for example, I wrote this screenplay (really awful) and "invented" the term VPL – visible panty line. Six months later I saw it in Vogue – never having mentioned it to anyone.

    Judith – Thanks for stopping by! And I'm glad you like the layout! Maybe I shouldn't change it. Really, it's the rest of the site that's getting redesigned, and I thought I should make Writerland "match," but we'll see. And I agree with you about reading! Great analogy.