Reflecting on the books I’ve read gets me thinking about why I read so much. There are plenty of people who read much more than I do and plenty of people who couldn’t care less about books. But I’m perhaps a bit greedy. I spend so much time reading books, reading about books, and wishing I were reading a book instead of whatever else it is I’m doing. I can’t seem to get enough.
Recently I’ve been a bit more selective of what books I start and finish because I realized that, in addition to having a large backlog, every year I find more books to read than I can possibly get through in a year. I will definitely die before I can get to all the books I’d like to read (and reread), so I need to make the most of the time I have left. And I wonder about other ways of being a reader, about the virtues of perhaps not reading widely.
Why do I read so much? So many reasons. I love being surprised or thrilled by a turn of events or a turn of phrase. Being taken into another time and place, a different person’s head. Learning about things I never would have known or understood otherwise. I love the deep exploration of character and motivation and conflict and resolution. I love that books make me think about things I never think about on my own.
But there are other reasons. Reading is a way to do something “productive” and “good” while avoiding other things that are perhaps hard and perhaps more worthwhile. It’s an escape, in more ways than one. I read because I want to write, although that makes no sense because after a certain point, only more writing can help you get better at writing, not more reading.
Maybe one day, if I read enough books, I’ll finally decide that I don’t need to write anything after all. That anything I have to say has already been said by others who said it better than I could. The time I free up by not writing might be enough to one day get to all the books.
In “The Case Against Reading Everything” at The Walrus, Jason Guriel shares a refreshingly contrary perspective on the notion of reading widely, specifically for aspiring writers:
“The real problem with telling young writers to fan out across genres and forms is that it doesn’t help them find a voice. If anything, it’s antivoice. Learning the craft of writing isn’t about hopping texts like hyperlinks. It’s about devotion and obsession. It’s about lingering too long in some beloved book’s language, about steeping yourself in someone else’s style until your consciousness changes colour. … It’s going embarrassingly, unfashionably all in.”
But there’s more to do it than the development of a voice, Guriel argues. There’s also an apparent problem with the quality of the work that’s out there:
“The call to ‘read widely’ is a failure to make judgments. It disperses our attention across an ever-increasing black hole of mostly undeserving books. Whatever else you do, you should not be reading the many, many new releases of middling poetry and fiction that will be vying for your attention over the next year or so out of some obligation to submit your ear to a variety of voices.”
I feel bad for young readers and writers who are expected to decide what is worthy of their attention. How do you know? I don’t know. Is he just talking about not reading Fifty Shades of Grey or self-help books? Relying on the opinions of critics and friends and reviewers isn’t enough. How does a reader separate the “undeserving” from the “worthwhile”?
A post at Anecdotal Evidence gives some practical advice for reading deeply. The notion is that choosing the ten best books you’ve read and rereading them carefully and thoroughly, to the exclusion of all other books, will teach you what is good, develop your taste, and make you a better reader. That list of ten books will vary hugely for everyone — at least I hope it does.
Picking ten best books for myself seems like an impossible task, but perhaps the point is really that any ten books would do the trick.
There is a sour point in avoiding the “variety of voices.” There are political implications of reading only what you like or only the work of people like you. Guriel addresses the issue in this way:
“Most people urging you to read widely probably have a hard time ranging outside their comfort zones. There’s no doubt that, in the political realm, we need more connection with those we disagree with. But for the most part, ‘read widely’ belongs to a class of expression that’s good to be heard saying. … In my experience, only a minority of writers like to chase their Leslie Jamison with some Conrad Black, or their Yvor Winters with some Roxane Gay.”
If many writers don’t follow a piece of advice, it doesn’t follow that the advice is bad. Doesn’t everyone have a hard time going outside their comfort zone? And “connection with those we disagree with” is not necessarily more influential than what we read (and consume, TV and film especially) in relation to how we see the world and what we think of people who aren’t like us. It’s a bit facile to dismiss the political importance of what we (and aspiring writers) read.
I appreciate how Jana Marie expressed the point in a recent Sunday letter:
“I’m not here to tell you to read more … No, my suggestion would be to read the same amount as you do now, but just to read more widely. To wander into an unfamiliar section of the bookstore. To get your news from other sites. To follow those whose voices are unrepresented (or under-represented) in your feed.”
Reading a variety of voices and opinions is important. Moving beyond what school or popular culture tells us is good and being open to writers and settings and ideas that might seem foreign. And learning how to make up our own minds about it all.
I belong to a couple of large Facebook writing groups. It’s kind of alarming how many times aspiring writers ask questions that make me wonder if they even read books. Do publishers accept books written in the first person? Will my manuscript get rejected if my character has [some random trait]? Can I alternate points of view between two characters?
I hold back from joining these conversations (and am increasingly wondering why I submit myself to them at all) because there are many other people who jump in and quote Stephen King at them.
(Most people like the “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot“ quote, but I prefer “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.” See also.)
What I want to say, though, is: read 5 books in your genre of choice and then answer your own damn question.
I’m clearly a horrible and unhelpful person. But why do people who don’t read books want to write one? Why would you write a book that you expect people to buy if you won’t even borrow a few from your local library?
It’s quite possible that the people asking these questions are Russian bots or trolls who hate writers. I really can’t rule out those possibilities, so I should just ignore them and move on, right? The internet is made of things that should be ignored.
Not reading at all
“For most blocked creatives,” Cameron says, “reading is an addiction. We gobble the words of others rather than digest our own thoughts and feelings, rather than cook up something of our own.” Ouch. That hits close to home, and I don’t really consider myself blocked.
So what does reading deprivation achieve?
“It is a paradox that by emptying lives our lives of distractions we are actually filling the well. Without distractions, we are once again thrust into the sensory world. … We are cast into our inner silence. Our reward will be a new outflow. Our own art, our own thoughts and feelings, will begin to nudge aside the sludge of blockage, to loosen it and move it upward and outward until once again our well is running freely.”
I don’t know what I’d do with myself if I didn’t read anything for a week. There’s so much I could do, so much I would want to do, but in reality I would binge watch Netflix and listen to podcasts and paint my nails and spend hours and hours and hours on Instagram. I’m not sure I know how not to consume something. But Cameron warns against this precise problem:
“Reading deprivation casts us into our inner silence, a space some of us begin to immediately fill with new words — long, gossipy conversations, television bingeing, the radio as a constant, chatty companion. We often cannot hear our own inner voice, the voice of our artist’s inspiration, above the static. In practicing reading deprivation, we need to cast a watchful eye on these other pollutants. They poison the well.”
I almost achieved reading deprivation on vacation last year, unintentionally, but I don’t think that’s what Cameron means. For me, the highlight of taking vacation is having more time to read. The highlight of my weekends is having more time to read. So not reading at all? For a single week? It seems impossible, which makes the challenge even more intriguing.