Michael Engelhard | The Writer as Reader

I am always surprised when I hear fellow writers admit that they are not avid readers. The reason they often give is a lack of time, or that they’d rather not let another author—especially a disciple of the same genre or subject matter as theirs—influence their own style. Similarly, there seem to exist more bloggers than readers of blogs in cyberspace, at least judging from a shortage of comments to even the most audacious and thought-provoking posts. (Of course, the absence of responses to those is not proof that the posts are not being read.)

A driven writer and omnivorous reader myself, I find such disengagement with other authors’ work shortsighted, backfiring. We all stand on the shoulders of our predecessors whether we admit it or not, which allows us to see farther. And time invested studying classic writings clearly benefits our own. Reading the work of a good writer from the perspective of a writer is at least a twofold experience: immersion in the substance (plot, argument, characters, facts) of a piece of writing and analysis of the author’s technique and intent. Only when we understand the intricacies of “voice” can we experiment and develop our own. We need to set the bar high and constantly strive to a quality found only in the best prose. Only when you encounter that perfectly honed sentence, that gut-piercing metaphor, that luminescent setting or character do you know what is possible. And from anthropological monographs to Jack London’s short stories to Aldo Leopold’s essays on land ethics, my reading throughout the years has shaped my philosophy, turning me into the person I am.

From a business perspective also, ignoring work being done in one’s field is silly. Simply knowing what is being written on a particular subject keeps a writer from reduplicating work that has already been done. Nothing is more embarrassing than pitching a magazine editor or book publisher only to find that a similar story ran only the month before, or that the market is flooded with pet biographies. Outlining competitive titles and assessing why your own project is worthy of consideration is a routine part of formal book proposals. In part, my most recent book Ice Bear—a cultural history of the polar bear—sprang from my realization that all previous books on the subject dealt almost exclusively with the animal’s ecology and biology, or encounters in the field, or were coffee table-style pictorials.

Conversely, a good article or book can seed a writer’s thinking and might lead to developing ideas or arguments worth exploring. One character or historical anecdote can lead to entire new scenarios, if not books—the film industry has long realized the potential of spinoffs.

Nonfiction writers such as myself at least need to peruse book bibliographies for initial research in order to locate unusual sources and repositories. (Footnotes can be equally valuable.)  But often, we also sift through hard-to-digest or arcane sources, extracting morsels largely unknown, which we then serve our readers in a palatable, delicious form. Even fiction writers conduct “research through reading” to get their atmospheric details right. Likewise, the reading writer, the undiscerning browser above all, is likely to find that balance of opinions, that chorus of dissenting voices that a solipsist tunes out too easily. Instead of preaching to the choir, you might listen to it.

I’ve even managed to turn my literary consumption into an act of cooperative creation. Four anthologies of outdoors writing, which I have edited—though economically stillborn—gave me an appreciation of the plurality of voices that underlies all writing. The work also forced me to read widely and deeply, with an editor’s mindset. (In the process, I’ve become more understanding of those whom we writers often cast in the role of antagonist, the women and men with the red pen.)

Last but not least, as a “nature writer” in particular, I read for inspiration not just for information. Though much that is being written today about wildlife and wilderness is overshadowed by destruction, crisis, or extinction, even the bleakest fare of the genre reminds me of why I became a writer in the first place. These stories too must be told. And seeing that I am not a lone voice in the wastelands of indifference provides me with the strength to continue.

Michael Engelhard is the author of the essay collection, American Wild: Explorations from the Grand Canyon to the Arctic Ocean, and of Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon. He lives in Fairbanks, Alaska and works as a wilderness guide in the Arctic.

Engelhard will read from and sign his two most recent books, American Wild: Explorations from the Grand Canyon to the Arctic Ocean and Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon, at the Northern Alaska Environmental Center (830 College Road), on February 24, 2017 from 5:30 to 7:30 PM. The presentation will include a brief slide show, “Beast of Many Faces.”

2 thoughts on “Michael Engelhard | The Writer as Reader”

  1. Well, since you mentioned a lack of comments, I’m happy to jump in. Thank you for this post and for the reminder to take time to read, as well as write. Well done. Except for maybe the word “reduplicating”.

    1. Michael Engelhard

      Thanks, Jennifer. I caught that later — and a few other rough spots. Proofreading is another form of reading writers need to be diligent about.

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