The quote “A (wo)man who refuses to read has no advantage over a (wo)man who cannot” is widely attributed to Mark Twain. Regardless of who said it, which could have been Old Man Harold at the five-and-dime grabbing trade publications and a cool root beer, the point remains vital. Reading transports the reader to a different time and location, placing us near to the author’s mind in a way that basic conversation cannot accomplish. A writer who refuses to read will NOT seriously learn their craft if they fail to open a book. This is a fact, unless you’re some kind of prodigy, which is unlikely. Trust me, it shows when a writer does not read. With that in mind, as writers, how can we get the most out of our time spent hunched over a book?
Writing is, and should be, an obsession. An obsession with words. An obsession of obtaining the truth with your words, which is a tall order considering the politics of truth. With those words we create vast landscapes, buildings, characters, relationships, struggle, etc.… One platitude I’ve heard in response to reading as a writer is that “I’d rather spend my time living life to gather material for my book,” or “If I don’t read then I won’t be distracted by what’s already been done.”
These are false responses. An unfortunate truth of creating art in the 21st century is that the creation you’re attempting to make has already been made. Sure, you’re creating something with your own flair, but let’s not pretend it’s never been done before. Musicians flood themselves in music and filmmakers douse themselves in film. It’s natural for any artist to spend obscene amounts of time studying (and enjoying) the craft they’ve chosen. Let’s take a look at two different approaches to reading deeper as a writer.
To read like a writer we have to dive deeper into the book we’re reading. We must locate the deeper meaning of the story the author is trying to convey. Referencing this Ted Talk may be helpful in reading deeper into a story. It says we as readers must practice “insight” and “acknowledge complexity” to get the most out of our reading. Insight is the ability to “arrive at an intuitive understanding based on the small clues” given to you by the writer. For example, the tiny clues given to us by Fitzgerald about the character Gatsby. Whereas it’s not explicitly stated, we know that Gatsby is a bootlegger, given the time period the story takes place. This reveals a lot later on in the story.
Recognizing complexity is another tactic that will help us as writers and readers become stronger at the craft. Life is not simply black and white, night and day, sunshine and rain. Given that, literature reflects life and that’s what makes reading (and writing) so rewarding. In a certain story there may be multiple forces at work that influence a character’s decision. Like in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road: what compelled Dean Moriarty, arguably the hero of a generation, to supposedly steal from Sal Paradise? Is Dean an inherently bad person, given all they went through up to that point?
It’s a Western practice to present opposites as separate polls that refuse to mix. But the human condition is much more complicated than that. For instance, in American politics Republicans and Democrats are presented as opposites in most media forms, but when boiled down to their roots, each and every member of Congress is a politician with their own agenda for themselves, their district, and their party. Which can be more complicated than attaching a letter and color to their classification. This is a simple example, but the point remains. Now on to another tip for enhancing our reading experience. This one is a little more involved.
Hunter S. Thompson, famed literary outlaw journalist, actually retyped Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell To Arms to get a feel for the rhythm of the novels. I can’t help but suspect this severely influenced Thompson as both a writer and a reader. Try taking one of your favorite novels and sit down quietly with it. Infiltrate the page, retyping and feeling what made that moment in literature great. The Great Gatsby has wonderful rhythm, pace, and word choice. Maybe try that book first.
It’s no surprise that 21st century distractions have limited the amount of time we as Americans spend reading. There’s often not enough time to sit down quietly with a book in isolation. Not only is time a constraint, but, as David Foster Wallace points out in an interview, the appetite for loneliness has all but nearly vanished.
“Reading requires sitting alone, quiet, in another room and I have…intelligent friends who don’t like to read because they get…not just bored. There’s an almost dread that comes up here about having to be alone and having to be quiet. You see that when you walk into most public spaces in America it’s not quiet anymore. It seems significant that we don’t want things to be quiet anymore.”
He goes on to say that in the US, and around the world, there’s a need to instantly gratify ourselves with what is immediately available. To go go go all the time. While that part of the mind is getting met, there’s another part of the human psyche that’s been left behind. The part that craves silence and quiet and thinking hard about something for a half an hour rather than a split second. Or spending an hour with a piece of art or a novel. “It’s not getting fed at all,” he says. “The faster we go…the more we don’t feed ourselves that likes quiet, that can live in quiet without any kind of stimulation.”
Recommended list of reading: