I read what you read
you do not read what I read
which is right, I am the one with the curiosity
you read for some mysterious reason
I read simply because I am a writer
—Frank O’Hara, “St. Paul and All That”
I didn’t read nearly enough in 2020. Like the previous two years, I set up a GoodReads challenge to read fifty-two books in 2020—a mark I’d reached in both 2018 and 2019. But somehow in the weird-ass year of 2020, I clocked only thirty books read. I have no idea why, but in the spirit of the Year of Phil, I’ll do no more hand-wringing on that subject and move forward into my new fifty-two book GoodReads challenge for 2021. Of course when I say “reading” in this context, that doesn’t include the many books I read every year in my capacity as an editor. These are the books I read for my own pleasure (not that I don’t find immense pleasure in the books I edit!) or education (not that I don’t find valuable education in the books I edit!).
I love reading, I love books, and I hope you do too. In fact, I insist on it. Writers have to read, plain and simple. We just have to. And this week let’s look to some working authors, living and dead, who agree with me, though at least one author actually bemoaned people reading—at least reading what he thought of as writing unworthy of attention:
[Samuel Taylor] Coleridge’s horror over the involuntary, seemingly autonomous reactions of readers to mass-produced, widely circulating printed texts is well documented. This distaste is perhaps best expressed in his famous footnote to Biographia Literaria, where he writes that “devotees of the circulating libraries” actually engage in “kill-time, with the name of reading”. Coleridge explains this “kill-time” as a “dose… supplied ab extra by a sort of mental camera obscura manufactured at the printing office, which pro tempore fixes, reflects, and transmits the moving phantasms of one man’s delirium, so as to people the barrenness of a hundred other brains afflicted with the same trance or suspension of all common sense and all definite purpose”. Through mechanical means that Coleridge associates directly with visibility (a “camera obscura manufactured at the printing office”), print can spread authorial distemper, when “one man’s delirium” spreads and propagates (or “people[s]”) itself, rendering “a hundred other brains afflicted.” Reading is offered as a healthful “dose” but gives instead mental disease.
This is from the fascinating book Reading Contagion, by Annika Mann, among the thirty books I read and learned from in 2020. In fact, this quote has been sitting in a Word file I call “Random Writing Quotes and Examples.” Anything and everything I read is in danger of having some bit of wisdom copied into that file, to be dragged out for things like this. When I’m reading, I’m paying attention to how this might make me a better writer, editor, and/or person.
Still, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s elitism aside, I think you’ll find that most authors read, and read voraciously. For instance, Truman Capote, when asked in a Paris Review interview if he reads, answered:
Too much. And anything, including labels and recipes and advertisements. I have a passion for newspapers—read all the New York dailies every day, and the Sunday editions, and several foreign magazines too. The ones I don’t buy I read standing at news stands. I average about five books a week—the normal-length novel takes me about two hours. I enjoy thrillers and would like someday to write one. Though I prefer first-rate fiction, for the last few years my reading seems to have been concentrated on letters and journals and biographies. It doesn’t bother me to read while I am writing—I mean, I don’t suddenly find another writer’s style seeping out of my pen. Though once, during a lengthy spell of James, my own sentences did get awfully long.
This William Faulkner quote is all over the Internet, including “40 Famous Authors on Reading”:
Read, read, read. Read everything—trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it.
A few weeks ago, I posted this tweet:
Published novels are the best fiction writing courses we can take. Read recent novels from major publishers and break down what they look like—how the words fit on the page, punctuation, grammar and usage… anything and everything you can pull out of them.
…and I’m delighted to report that one of my favorite authors, Haruki Murakami, quoted in “Famous Writers on the Love of Reading” by Jessica Manuel, clearly feels the same way:
I think the first task for the aspiring novelist is to read tons of novels. Sorry to start with such a commonplace observation, but no training is more crucial. To write a novel, you must first understand at a physical level how one is put together…
[Read everything] you can get your hands on—great novels, not-so-great novels, crappy novels, it doesn’t matter (at all!) as long as you keep reading. Absorb as many stories as you physically can. Introduce yourself to lots of great writing. To lots of mediocre writing too. This is your most important task.
And the same sentiment from an author I’ve never read, lest you think this is in some way limited to the world of literary authors:
Reading has been a precious part of my life since my first memories of my mother reading to us before bed each night. Now I have at least one book I’m reading at any time. I’ve been on a cozy mystery kick, but in the past week or so, I’ve been feeling the need to get back to reading romances. Fortunately I have a nice big stack of Love Inspired books in my TBR pile. And I love reading nonfiction—particularly if it’s associated with something I’m researching for a manuscript. I try not to let what I read influence my writing by picking up phrases and imagery that other writers use, but I love to see how my favorite authors use description and dialogue. I use their techniques as a learning tool as I read, thinking, ‘How did they do that? And how could I do it in my own voice?’
I have no doubt that for many of us it was the experience of reading that nudged us in the direction of wanting to write ourselves. This was certainly true for me, a voracious reader as soon as I was literate, and for a young Samuel R. Delany as well (from a Paris Review interview):
When I was thirteen, I read War and Peace—the first two hundred pages over two or three days, then I stayed up for thirty-six hours straight to read the rest, with my father coming in every few hours during the night to tell me to put the light out and go to sleep. Interruptions aside, it was a wonderful experience—though I slept all Sunday. That’s the point I decided novels were where it was at.
And one last reminder: Don’t let someone tell you what you have to read! Read anything and everything, inside and out of your genre. I’ve even suggested picking a book from the library shelves with your eyes closed and, whatever it is, reading it. Bertrand Russell, in “New Hopes for a Changing World,” warned against reading as forced labor, and please never think I’m suggesting that for any of us:
Children are made to learn bits of Shakespeare by heart, with the result that ever after they associate him with pedantic boredom. If they could meet him in the flesh, full of jollity and ale, they would be astonished, and if they had never heard of him before they might be led by his jollity to see what he had written. But if at school they had been inoculated against him, they will never be able to enjoy him.
And last of all, hey, guess what… this counts as reading!
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