When I started teaching at writers’ conferences at the end of the eighties, I always made a point of asking my students: “What have you been reading lately? Which books did you like best? Do you have a favorite author/story/essay?” and so on. I imagined that this would be the quickest way to get to know my students just as, when visiting someone’s home, their bookshelves speak volumes.
I don’t ask those questions any more. The results are depressing. An astonishing number of aspiring writers seem to be non-readers or minimal readers. They don’t want to read, they just want to write.
This is a common enough attitude. Plenty of would-be artists never visit an art gallery. When I taught college I would ask my new students (in an anonymous questionnaire) what were the most important things in their lives. Music usually came near the top of the list. Deeper in the questionnaire I dropped the innocent question: “Can you read musical notation?” The answer was a virtually unanimous “No.” When I raised this paradox for discussion I was invariably given a list of mega-famous rock stars, none of whom could read a note of music – “So what’s the point?”
So I stopped asking those questions too.
In this, as in so many other things, I have to conclude that my mind was warped by my early experiences. I was an addicted reader from an early age, haunting the library and driving my parents crazy. “Get your head out of that book and do something useful,” they would say. By “something useful” they meant some real activity in the real world, like cutting the lawn. However I always found the real world to be a problematical and boring place. The world of books was never dull, and I suppose that all this early reading fostered the desire to write.
There’s nothing inevitable about this connection, of course. Plenty of kids are avid readers but never think about becoming writers. Plenty of boys watch football from an early age without ever developing a desire to be smashed into the ground by fat young men in colored tights. Plenty of girls watch soap operas, but don’t really want their adult lives to be a constant turmoil of divorce, illness and sudden death. Reading doesn’t necessarily make a writer, although it worked that way for me.
But what motivates non-readers to dream about writing? It may be that some people suffer from a kind of reader’s block. They are so passionate about their own ideas that they can scarcely pay attention to anyone else’s. But I don’t believe it. My own experience suggests that non-reading writers are often simply unwilling to face the challenge of writers who may be superior. They can’t be blamed for that, but it’s a losing strategy.
Reading isn’t easy. It’s a lot harder than watching a movie, just as following a score is much harder than passively listening to music. Many college age students are shockingly bad at writing because they hate to read. For them, reading is like a dose of castor oil – they have to choke it down to get a good result later. When books are returned to the college bookstore at the end of the semester, it’s a scene of joy and relief. The man who runs the bookstore, tells me that the students never keep anything. Every book has to go like the reminder of a bad dream.
But reading is the best and perhaps the only way of learning to write. A good writer is almost always a skilled and omnivorous reader. For us, reading is not just a pleasure but also an education. A writer reads attentively, thoughtfully, actively – not to imitate but to learn. When we read a particularly good passage it should be second nature to stop, go back, and figure out how the writer achieved that particular effect. The same is true of particularly bad or boring passages. If we put down a story or an article half-read, we should stop and think about what was wrong with it.
The second good reason for reading is simply to stock the mind. I’m no Platonist, I don’t believe that we are born with any innate ideas: we are the sum total of everything we have ever put into our minds, so the more we read the more we will have to write about. When it comes to fact finding the reader has a huge advantage over the web user because only a tiny fraction of the world’s knowledge is on the web. It’s so easy to Google a question that a visit to the library seems almost masochistic. But the library is still where we find the most and best information. Of course reading isn’t enough by itself. We also need to observe and experience the world as intensely as possible. But without the habit of reading , or with a habit of reading only junk, there’s nothing in the mind worth writing about. “Garbage in, garbage out,” as the old computer wisdom had it.
The obvious Catch 22 here is that the more time we spend reading the less time we spend writing, and vice versa. The sheer decadent luxury of settling down with a book and being able to tell yourself that this is useful is so appealing that it’s easy to lose the balance between preparation and writing itself. The temptation to read just one more book before facing the blank screen can delay a project for years, or forever.
What to read? It’s a teasing question. We don’t want to limit ourselves to the kinds of things we would like to write. That might be discouraging. My personal opinion is that all good reading is a liberal education without grades or credits, and it will all come in useful some time. Read everything.
I looked through the heap of books beside my bed. There are twenty six of them – some read, some unread, and some half read. Top of the heap is Terry Coleman’s splendid biography of Nelson (half read), then Nick Hornby’s novel How to be Good (read, but not worth the effort), Wendy Kaminer’s study of irrationalism called Sleeping with Extra Terrestrials (not cracked yet), T. Correghessan Boyle’s 1980 novel Water Music (read – disgusting and funny), the latest issue of Granta, a collection of commentaries from the British newspaper The Guardian from 2004, and so on and so on. Right at the bottom I found a complete volume of Montaigne’s essays, in French that looks as if it has never been opened. It hasn’t.
Montaigne himself wrote a splendid essay about reading hard books. Very few of us like to do it. I rely on guilt and shame to force the issue. When I’ve read several easy books I reach for something more challenging out of sheer embarrassment.
In other words my reading habits are undisciplined, but it no longer bothers me. The main thing is to keep reading. Years ago I drew up an elaborate book list, a plan for future reading that would help me to improve my mind. I nearly died of boredom when I tried to follow it. So now I just read what I like, or what people send or give me. It works. A lifetime of chaotic reading has given me a huge, disorderly mass of disconnected knowledge, like a library after a bomb explosion. I don’t know what I’d do without it.
But every day I wish I were better grounded as a reader, that I knew my classics and could pull out the right quote at the right moment. When I meet someone with a truly well-stocked mind I am always reminded of my own massive ignorance. The literature of Africa and Latin America, for example, is literally a closed book to me.
How we read is a very personal thing, and probably irrelevant. Some people read very fast, others very slowly. Some read in front of the television, or in the midst of their families. Others can only read alone in bed. The big change in the twentieth century has been the level of distraction. The nineteenth century image of the reader often showed him or her absorbed in a book illuminated only by a candle. The rest of the world was dark, blocked out. It’s much harder to become lost in a book in a brightly lit room with a dozen other things happening.
Writing styles have changed to match our reading habits. Books and articles are shorter and simpler than they were a century or two ago, because it is harder for most of us to concentrate over long stretches of time.
But, in the end, reading is still a solitary activity even if it happens in a crowd. At the head of this chapter I put Jonathan Franzen’s remark that “The first lesson reading teaches is how to be alone” It’s a slightly disturbing thought, because it suggests that we read in order to be alone – to avoid human society and real life. My parents accused me of exactly this solitary vice, and I can scarcely deny the truth of it.
Writers and readers share this same impulse. A raised newspaper at the breakfast table says,“Leave me alone.” When we pick up a book we mentally leave the room, as it were. This is the wonderful gift that reading gives – to be able to drop out of the everyday world, even while still being in the midst of it. Yet the reader is never lonely, because s/he has the company of the writer.
If reading is about being alone it may tell us something important about the shrinking number of readers. Perhaps they or we don’t want to be alone. Consider the phenomenal success of cell phones, which are a way of never being alone, a way of never confronting ourselves. The French existentialists like Barbusse and Camus revealed the dark side of thinking our inner thoughts, but solitary reading often leads in that dangerous direction.
But writers must cultivate the habit of loneliness, because we must write alone. We need to be comfortable with our own company, and loneliness comes with the territory. We become writers for the same reason we became readers: to be alone and yet make a connection. To quote Franzen again:“The essence of fiction is solitary work: the work of writing, the work of reading.”
This is indeed a noble calling. If reading is a way of being alone, then writers are the high priests of loneliness, and the benefactors of humankind.