Quick, what are you reading right now?
Aside from this blog post, I mean.
What is in the buffer of your reading RAM? What book invades your dreams from the comfort of your nightstand? What novel takes up precious space and weight in your laptop bag? What magazines and periodicals live in a neat little pile on the top of your toilet tank? What websites sit in your navigation bar for quick and easy access?
If you expect to be a good writer, you should have answers to these questions ready to spring from your literary lips. Mine are, respectively: The Love of Hops by Stan Hieronymus, Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan, Smithsonian/Nat Geo, New York Times/The New Yorker/The Atlantic (and to a lesser extent, for the social aspect, Fark.com).
To channel and butcher Jack Lalanne – “Writing is king, reading is queen, put them together and you’ve got a kingdom.”
Reading is fundamental.
It is also mandatory.
Fortunately, most writers find the reading side of craft the “easy part.” We’re often guided into the world of writing by the gentle hand of reading, wanting to emulate our favorite authors, tell our own stories. I even know some writers who have the reverse problem to mine, they read significantly more than they write, and have a hard time making the transition from consuming to creating.
I admittedly do not read enough, even though I feel like I read a lot. It took going to grad school and interacting with other aspiring writers to realize that I was woefully under-read. Despite my years of studying literature in undergrad and reading for fun and self-edification in my free time, I discovered that I had so much more to read. I had missed out on champions of our art – Joan Didion, John McPhee, Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese – and my writing was worse for it. I thought that the amount and quality of what I was reading was perfectly satisfactory until I realized how much more successful, published writers were reading.
I came to accept that if I wanted to really take my writing from rookie to veteran, maybe some day earn a coveted MVW (Most Valuable Writer) award, I needed to start reading with purpose and artistic abandon.
But if you’re like me, brain packed and racked with obligations that push reading further and further from list of things you have time to do, you’re forced to be picky. You try to only read the best of the best, but deciding what is objectively best can be challenging, especially if your tastes lie outside the spectrum of the usual New York Times bestselling fare. It takes careful research and meetings with other readers to find what is worth your time and will best improve your own writing.
Our go-round on this planet is tragically short. Even if we devoted our entire lives to turning pages, we couldn’t even put a dent in the total text available. We’re forced to make choices about what we read, or if we should read, in a world filled with infinite distractions and alternatives to reading. Some stuff will get left behind. You won’t be able to read everything you want to read. But if you’re going to be a serious writer, you’ll have to make some hard choice, and you’ll have to turn yourself into a serious reader.
To try otherwise is just silly. It’d be like a chef who doesn’t taste what he’s cooking or an athlete who never practices outside of her events.
When you read a book, you’re not just taking in another writer’s opinions and style. You’re actively digesting the culmination of the entire writing process. A published book has been written and rewritten, edited by outsiders, edited by the author, marketed and branded, labeled and decorated, hammered into a work of gradable quality. Each and every essay and article in a periodical passes the probing eyes of an editor, and has suffered the torture of countless revisions.
When you read you are learning what it means to write in a publishable way, inhaling the intoxicating ether that billows up from writing deemed strong enough for public consumption. It is this ether that you should cherish and bottle, taking little sniffs of it every time you sit down to write. You have to appreciate the magical convoluted voodoo that goes into a completed piece of writing, and be able to break it into its baser parts.
And really, you should be reading because it is the reason us crazy writers spend all this time at the keyboard in the first place. We (with a few exceptions, I’m sure) write to be read, and reciprocation is just the decent thing to do. You can’t expect other people to read your stuff if you refuse to read other people’s stuff. It’s writing community service. Most other writers are just like you, laboring diligently, sweating in their fields of text, hoping they can sell their goods in their little roadside stand on the internet.
Be a good member of the community and read. Your art (and your friends) will thank you for it.