Sunday, February 28, 2010

Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic. Part 1: Reading

To be a writer you must first be a reader.  I've been a reader all my life.  Not the heavy-duty "I read a book a day" kind of reader, but the other heavy-duty "I read two to five books a month, and always have several in process concurrently."  [After all, I like to think I've got a life, even though others can prove that's not the case.]  I've always read, but I haven't always been all that choosy about what I read.

Up through college and for more than a decade after, I read science fiction and non-fiction almost exclusively.  I must have read a classic or two in high school (I remember The Scarlet Letter) but they didn't make a lasting impression.  My first foray into the classics was War and Peace.  It seemed the thing to do:  it was alleged to be so long and boring that it had become a joke.  I took it as a challenge, and it changed my life.  I don't usually re-read books, but I've now read War and Peace three times, with ever-increasing enjoyment.

Since then I first stumbled into the classics (W&P was only the first), I was directed by a friend (thanks, Jazz) to The New Lifetime Reading Plan, which is essentially an annotated bibliography of one person's idea of what fiction and non-fiction an "educated" person should have read before they die.  That's pretty glib, but that's what it comes down to.  I've learned so much going through the history of literature in chronological order -- for instance, at certain times and places it was considered improper to claim authorship.  More importantly, I saw the evolution of the novel from before the time there were chapter breaks up to today.

Okay, so not quite up to today.  I'm still working on the reading plan.  I'm currently reading around the turn of the previous century -- Freud (what a whacko he seems now, in hindsight).  As I mentioned in my previous post, I'm not reading as much literature from the last two years as I should be.  I'm working on it.

I've read all of Shakespeare.  [I wound up skimming the bulk of the sonnets.  Try as I might I couldn't find a cohesive thread, and there were so many!  But I enjoyed the plays.]  I've read Chinese, Japanese, and Indic literature from centuries ago.  Gilgamesh, Homer Illiad and Odessy, Dante's Inferno and its brethren, Dickens, Trollope, Austen.  Great stuff.

Sometimes I look back on the thirty or so years I read sci-fi and cringe.  But that's silly.  What would I have been reading otherwise?  Nothing?  No way!  The point is I was reading; reading and learning about stories and storytelling.  Learning what makes a good story and a good tell, and what makes a not-so-good one.  However, it wasn't until I got into the classics that I knew I was learning.  Seeing how the form of written works changed over the centuries helped me to recognize how much the form matters.  The pace of change has picked up in the last 180 years or so, and now that I can see that in context, it makes me excited to think what changes are in store for the novel over the next decade or two.

Form matters.  How a novel is laid-out affects our understanding, our involvement, our belief.  Up until a few hundred ago, most literature was set up to teach morality stories, and they were pretty blatant -- witness A Pilgrim's Progress.  A great many incremental changes have happened since then, some larger than others, but it's been a path of growth rather than revolution.  Today's novels still have things to teach us, things about love, family, independence, survival -- just about anything.  We expect to be entertained in the process of this learning, and (fortunately) we usually are, even in this age of instant gratification, the web, television, and twitter.  Just as in the past when earlier novels spoke to their audience in expected and accepted ways, the form of today's novels speaks to us.  At least it speaks to those of us who read.

What will change tomorrow?


  1. Hi John!
    I am not a life-long reader. I started in my thirties, while spending hours at soccer and baseball practices, and dance rehearsals. Short fiction appealed to my attention span and time restraints. And now I'm hooked. When I'm not writing, I can be a book a day reader. My husband prefers long, (in my opinion) drawn out hardcovers on mideival times, books with so many pages I wouldn't think of attempting them!

    Over the years I've been reading, I've noticed a big change in the pacing of books. Gone are long flowing descriptions, which suits me just fine. The romance genre has expanded to include vampires and shapeshifters, which I have yet to understand. Who knows what writers will think of next!

  2. Wendy, I know what you mean about long (and not always so flowing) descriptions. Spending a page to describe each character's clothing, body, and bearing, the first time they appear gets old pretty quickly. The same for the setting. I prefer to leave more to the imagination. Touching on one or two telling details does the job without stopping the pace dead.

    BTW -- if you were to recommend a relatively recent romance novel or two for me to read (knowing that I'm not into vampires etc either) what might they be?

  3. How about I recommend some authors I enjoy and you can research them to see if any of their storylines interest you. Try Robyn Carr - one of my favorite books of hers is Shelter Mountain. If you prefer historical stories try Lisa Kleypas. She has some contemporary books that are also good. Another author you may enjoy is Susan Wiggs. My library has books by all of these authors. Maybe yours does too!

  4. Oh..and thanks for joining my blog as a follower. I joined pimp my novel from your list...what a cool site!

  5. Congratulations to me!!! I'm follower number three!!! I'm not a writer, but I'm a huge cat lover. Nice profile picture!

  6. Thanks for the recommendation, Wendy. We've got a wonderful library here in town and I'm sure I'll be able to find something.

    And welcome, Dale. Cat lovers are always welcome. That picture is of my dear Abby who passed away last summer after nearly 18 years. Still miss her badly, especially when I talk or write about her (sniff).