I read part of it all the way through. --Samuel Goldwyn (1882–1974), U.S. film producer
To write, you have to read. Most of us forget that. When my son was very young, I’d wake up at 5 a.m. and spend the first two hours of the day writing, then I would go off to the California Institute of the Arts where I would write some more and teach. I’d arrive home for dinner, spend some time with my family, and then I’d deal with correspondence, return phone calls, and prepare for the next day. If I read anything, it was student papers and e-mail. The moment I started reading a newspaper, magazine, or book in bed, boom, I was asleep.
In this modern world, who has time to read? French author Louis-Ferdinand Celine put it another way, saying, “The novel can’t compete with cars, the movies, television, and liquor. A guy who’s had a good feed and tanked up on good wine gives his old lady a kiss after supper and his day is over. Finished.”
Writers must read
While everyone should read, writers must read, and to that end I started teaching English part-time, which forces me to make time for good stories, essays, and novels. I constantly rediscover that nothing matches a good book. I can get so caught up in a narrative that I’m marching with Tim O’Brien down a jungle path, wondering if the next step will unleash a land mine. Or I’m with a hapless survivor named Snowman who wanders alone after a plague has devastated the world.
I tend to teach different books each semester, often books new to me. That’s how I discovered Tim O’Brien’s extraordinary Vietnam war fiction, The Things They Carried, and Margaret Atwood’s masterful novel, Oryx and Crake. (There are easier ways to make yourself read, but this is my own particular journey.)
The point is, reading can get you to analyze, and as an adept and active reader, you can unlock some of the mystery of writing.
What kind of reading should you do?
A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading it. --William Styron (b. 1925), U.S. novelist
Read, first of all, what you enjoy. I’ve heard some people say they don’t like reading. I say they just haven’t found the right books. Every semester a student will approach me after a class and gush, “I didn’t think I’d like this novel—I’ve never actually read one—and it’s really great!” I’ll ask him or her how she made it through high school without reading a novel, and I’ll hear about Cliff’s Notes or copying from a friend. One person was so excited about reading, he described it as, “It’s like a movie, but in my head.” I love that.
A friend of mine, Steve, whose environmental business has him working from morning to late night, said he recently took a long flight, and he did something he had not done in years: He bought a book at the airport. He was drawn to Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer, a book about climbing Mt. Everest. Steve, a tall fellow as friendly as the ladybugs he sells to gardeners, had recently climbed Mt. Rainier, so climbing was on his mind. Steve admitted he had not read a book in years—plenty of business papers, but no books. He found he couldn’t wait to get to the next chapter. It was over all too soon. “I’d forgotten how captivating a book can be,” he said. “I have to find another.”
If a book is not an assignment, and if you’re bored after a chapter or two, put it down and start another book without guilt. I have left behind some time-honored masterpieces. Then again, I’ve discovered a number of great books, including many classics that I might not have otherwise started for fear of committing to them. There are too many incredible things to read for you to spend time with something that bores you.
Second, read the genre of writing in which you’re working. If you’re writing short fiction, read short fiction. If most short fiction bores you, find the stories that don’t and figure out why you like the stories you do. If you’re creating text for a webpage on a how-to subject, you should surf for and explore similar webpages. If you find yourself involved with a website for a time, pause and figure out why, especially if you’re reading the text.
You’ll save yourself a lot of time if you read in the genre you’re writing in. You won’t be reinventing the wheel. You’ll see what works and what doesn’t, and you’ll pick up ideas and drop others behind.
Be an active reader
I always begin at the left with the opening word of the sentence and read toward the right, and I recommend this method.—James Thurber (1894–1961), U.S. humorist, illustrator
The pleasure I have in teaching English is that when the students and I read a book or essay, we gather in a circle and discuss it. There’s nothing like a good discussion, particularly when the reading touches people. Early on, I encourage people to mark up their books—underline fabulous similes and metaphors and write notes in the margins to denote ideas or to ask themselves (or others) questions.
You, too, need to mark up your books if you don’t already do so. As a writer, you are not only reading for the story and ideas but also trying to understand a writer’s methods. Even though we’re told early in life not to mark up books, if you own a book, claim it, too, with your marks. Swim and wallow in the words. Circle, asterisk, underline, highlight—try a variety of methods to keep something memorable and easy to find again.
You can do this with ereaders, too. My Kindle, for instance, has a way to highlight and type notes.
As the late writer and educator Mortimer Adler wrote in an essay titled “How to Mark a Book,” the act of purchasing a book “is only the prelude to possession. Full ownership comes only when you have made it a part of yourself, and the best way to make yourself a part of it is by writing in it.” He went on to cite three reasons why.
First, it keeps you awake—not merely conscious, but wide awake. Second, active reading is thinking, and your own thinking tends to express itself in words, “So a marked book is a thought-through book.”
Third, your margin notes help you remember the views you had or the ideas the author expressed.
Reading is most rewarding when you’re involved in it, and I find being an active participant with my pencil indeed helps me understand a piece more fully. I’m reading analytically. I’m trying to see the two-by-fours behind the wallboard of the words. I’m trying to figure out how a writer shaped his or her work.
The finer points
The world may be full of fourth-rate writers, but it’s also full of fourth-rate readers. —Stan Barstow (b. 1928), British novelist, playwright
As you read, if there’s a word you don’t understand in context, look it up in a dictionary right then or highlight it so you can reference it later. The Kindle has an interactive dictionary, which makes things handy.
If you have the time, read a piece not just once, but again. It’s on the next reading, after you know where the story or essay is going, that you’ll see more clearly what the writer is doing. You also might more acutely perceive what confuses you, and you can ask yourself questions. The very act of writing down a question sometimes brings an answer to mind. “Why?” you might write next to a sentence, and then, “It might be because…” and you give a reason.
I also pepper my margins with “Ha!” or “Good!”
If I’m reading nonfiction, I’ll mark what I think is the main thesis. It does not always come in the first paragraph nor does it need to. A well-written argument is powerful, and sometimes I like to figure out the author’s strategy and logic. If there are a series of points, I might number them.
If I’m reading fiction, I may mark important turning points. I’ll highlight sentences that move me, or philosophical statements that strike home. I may use a vertical line to indicate the introduction of a character, or an asterisk where the protagonist learns or does something of import. On rereading, I also mark foreshadowing. Come up with your own reasons for marking.
At the simplest level, reading stimulates your thinking. Thinking can be dangerous—but you’ll need it to write.
Reading someone else’s work can make you more sensitive to your own work. When you are in the editing stage, you start to look at your own work as if someone else wrote it. You might ask yourself why you did what you did. If you can’t answer questions about your own work, then maybe others will not be able to, either.
In your own writing, by the way, don’t erase everything you don’t understand—there’s a lot to be said about instinct. If you see an error in logic or any other mistakes, though, fix that. By asking yourself questions, you’ll focus on your intentions more strongly.
Reading like this is a skill. The first time you do it may seem foreign, maybe even sacrilegious. Your efforts, though, will be repaid many times over because you’ll read more effectively and write with more confidence.
Go treat yourself to a good book. It’ll help you grow.
“Because we are readers, we don’t have to wait for some communications executive to decide what we should think about next--and how we should think about it. We can fill our heads with anything from aardvarks to zucchinis--at any time of night or day.” --Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007), American author