Before we write, we read.
We learn as children, preferably as very young children. As soon as we can read, a whole world opens up which would be denied us if we could not interpret those squiggles on the page. Full of insatiable curiousity, we devour picture books, then more solid affairs with no delightful drawings to lead us. Soon, the words are sufficient. They build their own pictures inside our heads as our imaginations grasp what the stories are about. We are hooked.
If we are born writers, the next step is one of desire, of compulsion. How can we produce those pictures? How can we hook others to bite into our words, to hear our voices and to see the fantasies rolling out across our minds?
Our first attempts at writing may seem shallow, both to us and to our readers, but we have to write these. We have to learn the craft. And in learning, there is more reading to be done. ‘How-to’ books, literary books, genre fiction of all kinds. Good books. And very, very, bad books. All teach us something. And that something may end up in the next draft of our current tome.
There are writers who profess not to read. I have met one. She likes one particular genre but doesn’t read it. She thinks that to read books from the genre she writes will confuse her and may cause her to include things from those stories in her own. She says she fears a kind of accidental plagiarism.
I cannot pretend that I understand this. As someone who will read the label on a sauce bottle if it sits in front of me, I read anything and everything. Like writing, it isn’t a choice, it’s a compulsion. Stick the written word anywhere close to me and I’ll read it. I think most people are drawn to words. Children learn dreadful spelling from clever(?) advertising. Posters abound. Even at the side of the road, there are signs telling us all about some bazaar, or garden show, trying to distract us from the job in hand. I think these really are stupidly distracting and I make a conscious effort not to look, to concentrate on the road.
But not reading anything? If you write, how is that possible? How do you stay up to date with your genre if you don’t read it? How do you learn to make your writing better if you choose not to listen to some of the tons of authorial wisdom out there?
Sometimes, writing is tough, really tough. I’m not big on writer’s block. I’m lucky enough not to have suffered much from it. If anything I have more of a problem with the bad back/neck/wrists that ensue from sitting too long and typing too much. But if you are a bit blocked, escaping into a far away world is a release from the worry of it. Picking up your favourite (or new and as yet undiscovered) How-to may be the perfect way to find a new route back into your novel.
What could be more wonderful than reading for pleasure, for the sheer delight of telepathy, one mind showing another the inner workings of their story? It was Stephen King who first suggested to me that writing was telepathy, in his wonderful almost-memoir On Writing. I love the analogy and have quoted it many times since. But there are other ways to read, especially if we expect to learn something along the way: with highlighters and bright sticky labels to hand.
Take a look at How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler revised with Charles van Doren
When you buy a book, you establish a property right in it, just as you do in clothes or furniture when you buy and pay for them. But the act of purchase is actually only the prelude to possession in the case of a book. Full ownership of a book only comes when you have made it a part of yourself, and the best way to make yourself a part of it — which comes to the same thing — is by writing in it.
Why is marking a book indispensable to reading it? First, it keeps you awake — not merely conscious, but wide awake. Second, reading, if it is active, is thinking, and thinking tends to express itself in words, spoken or written. The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks. Third, writing your reactions down helps you to remember the thoughts of the author.
Reading a book should be a conversation between you and the author. Presumably he knows more about the subject than you do; if not, you probably should not be bothering with his book. But understanding is a two-way operation; the learner has to question himself and question the teacher, once he understands what the teacher is saying. Marking a book is literally an expression of your differences or your agreements with the author. It is the highest respect you can pay him.”
If you own a Kindle, ‘marking’ a reference book is easy now, no pen or sticky tabs or highlighter required. I pay that respect of annotation with many of my ‘real’ books, but they are the special ones. The ones from which I’m learning my craft. I would no more dream of marking one of my beautiful reading books than of daubing paint on the Mona Lisa. And marking a library book I consider to be the ultimate sin against reading. Grr! Don’t understand people who do that. Or who turn down corners…. or leave books flat instead of using a bookmark….. But that’s another subject.
I suspect that the lady of my acquaintance who professes not to read is in the minority among writers. Or she tells enormous porkies and I cannot for the life of me see why she would. But I could be wrong on either count.
So, what about you? Are you an avid reader? And how do you read a reference book that you own? Carefully, marking each paragraph of interest? Do tell.