It’s depressing as both an editor and a writer when I hear writers (or more usually aspiring writers) saying they don’t read. Getting books out into the world is difficult. It’s a huge amount of work for both publishers and writers and the only way it’s possible is if there are people out there who read. If you are a writer who doesn’t read the work of others, what would make you imagine that others would want to read your book?
Writers have to read:
1. Because reading is your world
Imagine a chef who hates to eat, an artist who’s never been to a gallery. It’s not credible — neither is a writer who doesn’t read.
2. Influence is good
Sometimes writers tell me they don’t read because they don’t want to influence their work. This is the height of arrogance and flawed thinking. No one creates ex nihilo. No one is that original. Of course you shouldn’t be copying others or never finding your own voice, but what has gone before you is a treasure trove. Tradition and inspiration are all around you in books. You can learn structure, technique and so much more by reading. We become innovative by building on the past, not by writing it off.
3. For the love of language
Great writers are those who have found wonderful ways to use language Their language might be supple or taut and honed. It might be rich or lyrical. It might be rhythmic or urgent. You will discover an infinite kaleidoscope of vocabulary and style in the pages of books written by others.
4. To encourage imagination
If you don’t let your imagination run free as a reader, you will impoverish it. As Eudora Welty remarks:
A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.
In the essay ‘Things not actually present’ Ursula K Le Guin discusses how fantasy gives us a global language with which to understand complex reality and cultural commentary. We need imagination to solve problems, to comprehend ourselves and the world we live in. Reading fires the imagination.
5. To see what works
We can learn the theory of grammar or read ‘how to’ books on how to make decisions about plot or pacing. We can find cheat-sheets on building character and endless texts on point of view. But we learn a great deal of this, not only as a cerebral activity but in our bones, simply be reading. As William Faulkner advises:
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.
When we read books that have stand-out characters or tight pacing something in our gut ‘gets it’. We learn what works.
6. To see what doesn’t work
Not all books will thrill you as a reader. There are varieties of taste, but some books don’t work. Others may have one flaw that nags at you. I used to force myself to finish every book I started. I’ve decided life is too short for that, but I do give every book a good try, at least the first fifty to a hundred pages and if it isn’t working for me, I ask why.
Someone else might love the book, but ask yourself what it is that doesn’t resonate. It will help with the decisions you make about your own writing.
7. Because the more you read, the more you understand the human condition
Understanding the mental states of others is vital not only to everyday relationships but also to writing. The area known as ‘Theory of Mind’, how we develop this skill, is vast and complex. But research suggests that reading literary fiction enhances our understanding of others.
Engaging with works of art gives us deeper thinking and empathy. Is that such a surprise? If you want to write about the human condition, it behoves you to have some understanding of it.
8. Because the diversity of history, culture and thought is all contained in writing
You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them
Ray Bradbury points out.
Or this from Kurt Vonnegut
I believe that reading and writing are the most nourishing forms of meditation anyone has so far found. By reading the writings of the most interesting minds in history, we meditate with our own minds and theirs as well. This to me is a miracle.
I love to travel. My idea of heaven is to be able to stay for weeks in a place I’m writing about. If I can eat the food, smell the streets, see the art, hear the language first hand. I know it will enhance what I write.
But there are practical and logistical constraints on this kind of research. Even a wonderful Arts Council grant can’t pay for me to go back to 1950s Budapest or eleventh century Moorish Spain.
Reading can take me into the past or into realities that might not even be possible. The diversity is endless and available: cheap and easy to find.
9. Because it will encourage you to take more risks with your writing
When I was writing the book that became Stale Bread & Miracles I got stuck. I had a long novel on a subject that was important to me. But it was miserable. There were good reasons for that. Nonetheless I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to read it. While I was pondering how to move the book forward I was editing a book of prose poetry. It occurred to me that I could take each long, self-pitying chapter and crush it into a prose poem. Each piece would be pithy, allude to the darkness, but also let in some light, even humour to an awful situation.
The resulting slim collection has been my biggest selling book to date. And it’s accessible to people who don’t generally read poetry.
The more we read, the more we expose ourselves to the range of possibilities for our writing. Reading not only expands your imagination, vocabulary and empathy but also your ability to reshape your writing in unexpected ways.
10. Because it’s good for you
Even if you are not a writer, reading helps to keep our brains active and is an activity that reduces stress. If you are a writer you need those benefits. Reading is a pleasure and if you don’t think so, what business have you asking others to to do it? As Virginia Woolf says, writers should love books for their own sake:
When the Day of Judgment dawns and people, great and small, come marching in to receive their heavenly rewards, the Almighty will gaze upon the mere bookworms and say to Peter, ‘Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them. They have loved reading.’
11. Because books are the best place to escape
When your own writing hits an obstacle, you can hole up in someone else’s world. Get some nourishment before you return to the hard graft. Gustave Flaubert puts it like this:
The one way of tolerating existence is to lose oneself in literature as in a perpetual orgy.
There are times when this escape is life-saving. As Maya Angelou comments:
When I look back, I am so impressed again with the life-giving power of literature. If I were a young person today, trying to gain a sense of myself in the world, I would do that again by reading, just as I did when I was young.
12. Because reading increases your ability to be alone with your thoughts
Swathes of humanity appear to be losing the ability to be alone with nothing but their thoughts. Both writing and reading are solitary acts and if you can’t be alone with your thoughts as a reader forget about writing.
We should read to give our souls a chance to luxuriate
Henry Miller offers.
The more we reduce experience and reflection to status updates on Facebook, the less we allow ourselves to encounter and ponder the distance between the world we live in and our inner world.
Why does this matter?
Because immediacy makes us write differently.
Immediacy encourages us to use metaphor less.
Immediacy makes us less likely to craft our writing. Immediacy is about numbers — of friends, fans, comments, followers — rather than quality.
Immediacy is not about giving our souls time to luxuriate but about ensuring we don’t have a moment to let uncomfortable thoughts in.
Yet I can’t help but remember that reading — both the careful selection of books and being given enough privacy to quietly read them myself — was among the first freedoms I had.
13. Because the best writers read
Philip Roth bluntly says of the writing life:
It’s work. Just endless work. There isn’t time for any bullshit. I just have to work all the time, very hard, and cut everything else out… I write from about ten till six every day, with a hour out for lunch and the newspaper. In the evenings I usually read. That’s pretty much it.
Reading is part of the total immersion of writing. If you don’t love it, do it anyway. As Harper Lee says:
Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.
14. Because you know what it’s like to want readers
When you’ve written something made of the world, it’s a terrible feeling to see it overlooked. As writers we long for others to read our articles,our poems, our books. You owe the return favour to other writers.
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