A man will turn over half a library to make one book. ~Samuel Johnson
There are books about how to read as a writer, but I haven’t yet read one. It’s not interest I lack, but time. Like Joshua Bodwell, author of “You Are What You Read” (Poets & Writers, Jan/Feb 2012), I’ve experienced that sad and startling revelation that I’ll never read all the books I intend to. In fact, I’m pretty sure I own more books than I’ll ever read. If logic prevailed, I’d never add a new title to my library, which thanks to the e-reader is no longer limited by physical space. But book lust goes way beyond logic.
Reading is everything to me as a writer,” says Anthony Doerr, quoted in Bodwell’s article. “It’s where I go when I get discouraged, when I forget why it is I wanted to be a writer in the first place. And books are where I go when I want to be reminded of the mystery and magic of our shared language.” That’s all the encouragement I need to go browsing and come home with a bag full of books.
More justification: in “The Importance of Being Envious,” an essay in Naming the World, Tom Robbins contends that for the writer, reading evokes a productive sort of jealousy that he likens to literary Viagra. “It isn’t as if I want to elbow Norman Mailer out of line at the bank or steal Louise Erdrich’s ink,” Robbins explains. “What I desire is to feel for myself the rush Mailer or Erdrich must have felt when they pulled that particular rabbit out of a hat. What I covet is to have the kind of effect on language-conscious readers that Norman and Louise have just had on me.”
If envy seems too visceral a reason for reading, consider that we’re motivated to read by an equally fundamental need: security. Some of us were lucky enough to spend our childhoods cocooned in books, sheltered in the assurance we’d one day emerge beautiful. Others came to books through a compassionate teacher or librarian. Either way, the draw of a good book is as deeply satisfying as the silky edge of a favorite blanket. Even as we aim to hone our craft with a more distant and objective consideration of text, we can’t ignore this primal attraction, the comfort of story.
We all have a history with books. When I lived in a small
Alaska village – a million years ago, as I tell students now, otherwise known as 1979 – I coveted a relationship with the Alaska State Library. The nice people in Juneau sent out a print catalog; you browsed, ordered, and eagerly awaited your shipment. Later I moved to a larger Bush community with its own little library, but as I juggled a household and a family and a fulltime job, I despaired of ever again reading a whole book for pleasure.
Those pressures eased, and I did of course find time again for whole books. Yet I still shortchange myself when it comes to reading. It feels too much like an indulgence, a reward squeezed in over lunch or at bedtime, unless it’s research for “real work.” This is wrong-headed thinking. I need to expand the book time in my day, to acknowledge that the guilty pleasure of working with words includes sustained and joyful periods of doing what I love. Besides, I do read also for craft, studying how this word works, how that sentence turns, how seamless parts create meaning even as I indulge a deep-rooted desire. Sometimes that means reading twice – once for joy, again to consider how the writer created the joy. Re-reading might seem a large indulgence when there are so many unopened books on the shelf, but new research affirms its benefits.
Then there’s the matter of which titles writers should read. Classics? I taught them for years, and while I appreciate their place in our literary heritage, I’m not especially drawn to them for their own sake. Bestsellers? In the genre I’m writing? Outside the genres I’m writing, for fear of being influenced?
“I never read anything I’m not inspired by,” says author Simon Van Booy. That works for me. Though I make lists, I’m a promiscuous reader, easily distracted from the titles I pledged to. Since I’ll never get to all those books anyhow, what matters most is the approach: purposeful, and also with pleasure.
Check This Out: I read Bookforum not so much to discover new titles but to learn more about authors I already love. From a great review of Marilynne Robinson’s latest book, for instance, I learned about Robinson’s perspective on the West along with her take on religion. Time to re-read Housekeeping.
Try This: Develop your own customized book report habit, mining whatever you read for treasures of craft. Either at the end of your daily reading sessions or when you finish a book (or a story or essay or poem), write about what you loved most. As when revising, consider both the larger structure elements and the nuanced details. Speculate on how the writer worked the manuscript; if possible, affirm your speculations through research.
Deb crossposts at www.selfmadewriter.blogspot.com.