During the Q&A for How to Read a Book, someone asked whether reading a lot makes us better writers. The short answer is yes. Reading and writing are two sides of the same coin. As Anne Lamott points out, the converse is also true – writing makes you a better reader.
One reads with a deeper appreciation and concentration, knowing now how hard writing is, especially how hard it is to make it look effortless. You begin to read with a writer’s eyes. You focus in a new way. You study how someone portrays his or her version of things in a way that is new and bold and original.
Speaking with the wisdom of experience, Stephen King, Ernest Hemingway and David Foster Wallace share their thoughts on the relationship between reading and writing.
Why to Read
In On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King explains why reading is so important for those who want to write.
If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around those two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.
I’m a slow reader, but I usually get through seventy or eighty books a year, mostly fiction. I don’t read in order to study the craft; I read because I like to read. It’s what I do at night, kicked back in my blue chair. Similarly, I don’t read fiction to study the art of fiction, but simply because I like stories. Yet there is a learning process going on.
The real importance of reading is that it creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing; one comes to the country of the writer with one’s papers and identification pretty much in order. Constant reading will pull you into a place (a mind-set if you like the phrase) where you can write eagerly and without self-consciousness. It also offers you a constantly growing knowledge of what has been done and what hasn’t, what is trite and what is fresh, what works and what just lies there dying (or dead) on the page. The more you read, the less apt you are to make a fool of yourself with your pen or word processor.
What to Read
Schopenhauer said “one can never read too little of bad, or too much of good books: bad books are intellectual poison; they destroy the mind.”
While that may be true as a general rule, King talks about the role badly-written books played in teaching him to write.
Asteroid Miners (which wasn’t the title, but that’s close enough) was an important book in my life as a reader. Almost everyone can remember losing his or her virginity, and most writers can remember the first book he/she put down thinking: I can do better than this. Hell, I am doing better than this! What could be more encouraging to the struggling writer than to realize his/her work is unquestionably better than that of someone who actually got paid for his/her stuff?
One learns most clearly what not to do by reading bad prose – one novel like Asteroid Miners (or Valley of the Dolls, Flowers in the Attic, and The Bridges of Madison County, to name just a few) is worth a semester at a good writing school, even with the superstar guest lectures thrown in.
Good writing, on the other hand, teaches the learning writer about style, graceful narration, plot development, the creation of beautiful characters, and truth-telling. A novel like The Grapes of Wrath may fill a new writer with feelings of despair and good old-fashioned jealousy – “I’ll never be able to write anything that good, not if I live to be a thousand” – but such feelings can also serve as a spur, goading the writer to work harder and aim higher. Being swept away by a combination of great story and great writing – of being flattened, in fact – is part of every writer’s necessary formation. You cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you.
Who to Read
In an article Hemingway wrote for Esquire in 1935, he recounts the advice he gave an aspiring writer known as Maestro, Mice for short. This entertaining excerpt appears in Hemingway on Writing.
Mice: What books should a writer have to read?
Y.C. [Your Correspondent]: He should have read everything so that he knows what he has to beat.
Mice: He canʼt read everything.
Y.C.: I donʼt say what he can. I say what he should. Of course he canʼt.
Mice: Well what books are necessary?
Y.C.: He should have read War and Peace and Anna Karenina, by Tolstoi, Midshipman Easy, Frank Mildamay and Peter Simple by Captain Marryat, Madame Bovary and LʼEducation Sentimentale by Flaubert, Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann, Joyceʼs Dubliners, Portrait of the Artist and Ulysses, Tom Jones and Joseph Andrews by Fielding, Le Rouge et le Noire and La Chartreuse de Parme by Stendhal, The Brothers Karamazov and any two other Dostoevskis, Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, The Open Boat and The Blue Hotel by Stephen Crane, Hail and Farewell by George Moore, Yeats Autobiographies, all the good De Maupassant, all the good Kipling, all of Turgenev, Far Away and Long Ago by W.H. Hudson, Henry Jamesʼ short stories, especially Madame de Mauves and The Turn of the Screw, The Portrait of a Lady, The American-
Mice: I canʼt write them down that fast. How many more are there?
Y.C.: Iʼll give you the rest another day. There are about three times that many.
Mice: Should a writer have read all of those?
Y.C.: All of those and plenty more. Otherwise he doesnʼt know what he has to beat.
Mice: What do you mean “has to beat”?
Y.C.: Listen. There is no use writing anything that has been written before unless you can beat it. What a writer in our time has to do is write what hasnʼt been written before or beat dead men at what they have done. The only way he can tell how he is going is to compete with dead men. Most live writers do not exist. Their fame is created by critics who always need a genius of the season, someone they understand completely and feel safe in praising, but when these fabricated geniuses are dead they will not exist. The only people for a serious writer to compete with are the dead that he knows are good. It is like a miler running against the clock rather than simply trying to beat whoever is in the race with him. Unless he runs against time he will never know what he is capable of attaining.
Mice: But reading all the good writers might discourage you.
Y.C.: Then you ought to be discouraged.
If you’ve always wanted to read the classics but keep putting it off, try breaking the task into manageable chunks.
When & Where to Read
Stephen King suggests aspiring writers read wherever and whenever possible.
Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life. I take a book with me everywhere I go, and find there are all sorts of opportunities to dip in. The trick is to teach yourself to read in small sips as well as in long swallows. Waiting rooms were made for books – of course! But so are theater lobbies before the show, long and boring checkout lines, and everyone’s favorite, the john. You can even read while you’re driving, thanks to the audiobook revolution. Of the books I read each year, anywhere from six to a dozen are on tape. As for all the wonderful radio you will be missing, come on – how many times can you listen to Deep Purple sing “Highway Star”?
Whether you read in “small sips” or curled up by the fire with a glass of wine, the point is that you need to find the time to read if you want to be a writer.
You have to read widely, constantly refining (and redefining) your own work as you do so. It’s hard for me to believe that people who read very little (or not at all in some cases) should presume to write and expect people to like what they have written, but I know it’s true. If I had a nickel for every person who ever told me he/she wanted to become a writer but “didn’t have time to read,” I could buy myself a pretty good steak dinner. Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.
How to Read
Should aspiring writers use a different technique when reading? David Foster Wallace suggests a variation on the Feynman technique to teach yourself to write better. Learning to write, he says, requires “learning to pay attention in different ways”.
Not just reading a lot, but paying attention to the way the sentences are put together, the clauses are joined, the way the sentences go to make up a paragraph. Exercises as boneheaded as you take a book you really like, you read a page of it three, four times, put it down, and then try to imitate it word for word so that you can feel your own muscles trying to achieve some of the effects that the page of text you like did. If you’re like me, it will be in your failure to be able to duplicate it that you’ll actually learn what’s going on.
It sounds really, really stupid, but in fact, you can read a page of text, right? And “Oh, that was pretty good…” but you don’t get any sense of the infinity of choices that were made in that text until you start trying to reproduce them.
Still curious? Check out Stephen King’s long reading list or his top 10 list, Hemingway’s advice on writing and David Foster Wallace on argumentative writing and non-fiction.