How much should a writer read?

A few months ago, I played poker with a Famous Author (he was a guest of one of the usual assortment of schleps I play with). He had written a book that Everyone had read, a real Visionary Work of True Genius.

Of course, I hadn’t read his book, but that didn’t stop me from engaging the Famous Author in a conversation about writing. “Do you think you have to be an avid reader in order to write?” I asked him.

“Absolutely,” he replied. “I can’t imagine a writer who doesn’t read broadly. I’m reading all the time.”

“That’s interesting,” I said, “because I’m a writer and I don’t read nearly as much as, say, my wife does. But she doesn’t enjoy writing at all.”

I could see a look forming on this guy’s face that seemed to say that I must not be much of a writer (and certainly, in comparison to him, I wasn’t). “Well, I think it would be very hard to do,” he hedged. “You have to love reading in order to write well.”

I saw a similar point of view in a recent post by Dan Wickett on Conversational Reading. Wickett reads so much that he has to keep several boxes of unread books in order to ensure he has plenty to read. He actually has a system for determining the order he’ll read his books in. The substance of his post was to ask other readers how they prioritize their stacks of reading.

Let’s see… how do I prioritize my reading? Well, if I have a book, then I’ll start to read it until I get bored with it. Then it gets buried in a stack somewhere and I’ll probably never get back to it. Occasionally I find a book I like and I actually read the whole thing all the way to the end. This generally happens less than once a month.

Hmmmm….

Clearly I’m never going to be much of a writer.

In fact, I do read, all the time. It’s just that mainly my reading consists of blogs and newspaper, magazine, and journal articles. Oddly, though, what I’m generally inclined to write is books.

Am I a hypocrite? I don’t think so. The books I’m working on now actually read more like a sequence of magazine articles than a sustained narrative. It’s not that there isn’t a continuous thread through the text, it’s just that the books owe more to the journalistic tradition than the literary tradition. In some ways, then, I am writing the same kind of stuff I like to read. So maybe I’ve got more in common with Dan Wickett and that Famous Writer than I’m initially willing to admit.

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3 Responses to How much should a writer read?

  1. Robert Nagle says:

    Of course, my opinion counts for little these days, but committed writers (I mean the literary kind) rarely have enough time to do any serious reading. I have a day job, so I need to squeeze my writing in whenever I can. The choice becomes: now that I have a free moment, should I be reading a book or writing something? (or working on some programming project)? Usually I opt to spend the time writing. A writing teacher of mine at grad school once mentioned that devoting yourself to writing spoiled your enjoyment of writing (later on, I think he was referring to something now known as “designeritis” http://terranova.blogs.com/terra_nova/2005/04/designeritis.html#more ).

    This year, I resolved to actually read more books (see this year’s reading list http://www.imaginaryplanet.net/weblogs/idiotprogrammer/index.php?p=83398063 ). But over time I’ve come to accept that reading and writing go in phases. I once spent a year and a half in my twenties doing nothing but read (btw, I read Moby Dick during that time!). The six months later, I spent all my free time writing about what I’d read (a project I still haven’t found the time to put on the web yet). Both phases were frustrating. You can’t survive long without one or the other. Overseas I read a ton, but when I came stateside in 1998 (and needed to find a job), I spent the next 4 years learning about technology at the expense of both reading and writing. Now I’m in a reading phase again (with my next destination the great Chinese classics).

    One reason not to get too far away from reading is to know how people of the past lived and loved and enjoyed and suffered. Currently I’m reading, for example, Old Wives’ Tale by Arnold Bennett, a work completely at odds with the modern sensibility (with conventional narrative techniques) and a stifling realism and a page length few modern readers could tolerate. And yet, the novel speaks to everyday situations of ordinary people, the perils of bad choices, the drudgery of a full time job. One reason to read is to remind oneself how bizarre modern living really is.

  2. Doug Hoffman says:

    Hi Dave,

    Last night, I came to page 190 in Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep (forgive me if the HTML tags don’t work on this site), and I told my wife, “Oh, great. It’s only page 190 and something interesting finally happened.”

    She said, “Why are you reading it, then?”

    “Well, it did win a Hugo.”

    She pointed out that in the book she’s reading, Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream, one of the jokes was that Adolph Hitler had won the Hugo for his book. Her point being, I guess, that the Hugo was nothing to be that proud of.

    I picked up Jonathan Lethem’s Gun, with Occasional Music this last weekend, and find myself gazing at it longingly as I wade through Vinge’s award-winner. I suppose I’ll make the shift if Fire loses steam post-page 190.

    And, yup, first thing I did when I came to your site, I clicked on your bio. I suppose I should do a serious bio on my page. Ugh. What a task.

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