Read Until Your Brain Creaks

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Some months ago, I listed seven brief and basic pointers for writers, and have since wanted to take time to expand on each one of those points with seven observations under each head. So here is the second point, upon which I would like to enlarge.

Read. Read constantly. Read the kind of stuff you wish you could write. Read until your brain creaks. Tolkien said that his ideas sprang up from the leaf mold of his mind. These are the trees where the leaves come from.

So then, what about it? How should writers read?

1. The first thing is that writers should in fact be voracious readers. We live in a narcisstic age, which means that many want to have the praise that comes from having written, without the antecedent labor of actually writing, or the antecedent labor before that of having read anything. Mark Twain once defined a classic as a book that nobody wanted to read, but which everyone wanted to have read. It is a similar situation here. Wanting to write without reading is like wanting to grind flour without gathering wheat, like wanting to make boards without logging, and like wanting to have a Mississippi Delta without any tributaries somewhere in Minnesota. Output requires intake, and literary output requires literary intake.

2. Read widely. Reading shapes your voice, and if you want a wide, experienced voice, you have to get out more. Reading in one genre only is a form of literary provincialism. The timbre of your voice will be affected in good ways by every place you have been, bookwise, and so you should make a point of reading novels, histories, collections of poetry, comedies, biographies, theology, and plays. And don’t be a afraid to have twenty books going at once.


3. Read like a reader, and not like someone cramming for a test. If you try to wring every book out like it was a washcloth full of information, all you will do is slow yourself down to a useless pace. Go for total tonnage, and read like someone who will forget most of it. You have my permission to forget most of it, which may or may not be reassuring, but you will forget most of it in either case. Most of what is shaping you in the course of your reading, you will not be able to remember. The most formative years of my life were the first five, and if those years were to be evaluated on the basis of my ability to pass a test on them, the conclusion would be that nothing important happened then, which would be false. The fact that you can’t remember things doesn’t mean that you haven’t been shaped by them.

At the same time, mark everything striking that you read — you won’t remember everything you read, and you won’t even remember everything you mark. Nevertheless, it is not a sin to remember some things, or to mark them in a way to be able to find them again.

4. Read like a lover of books, and not like someone who wants to be seen as knowledgable, or well-read, or scholarly. Read because you want to, not because you need to. Actually, you need to as well, but you need to want to. You also need to want to need to, but I am rapidly getting out of my depth.

5. Pace yourself in your reading. A little bit every day really adds up. If you only read during sporadic reading jags, the fits and starts will not get you anywhere close to the amount of reading you will need to do. It is far better to walk a mile a day than to run five miles every other month. Plod. Make time for reading, and make a daily habit of it, even if it is a relatively small daily habit.

6. As a general pattern, read quality, and go slumming occasionally to remind yourself why quality matters, and what quality is.

7. Read boring books on writing mechanics. Read grammars, dictionaries, writers’ memoirs, books of proverbs, books of cliches, books on how to write dialogue, books on how not to write dialogue (“I dropped my toothpaste!” he said crestfallenly.), and books about finding good agents and how to blow away the readers of query letters. Writing is a vocation, and there is a body of professional literature out there — which is uneven in quality, just like every other kind of book. Read a lot of it anyway.

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