A Writer’s Reading Life

Writers— at least writers with the potential of writing readable books and having writing careers— are readers. If there are no books handy, a writer will read the back of a cereal box while having breakfast. A male writer who prefers adventure fiction will read an Amish romance if he’s stuck somewhere with only that reading material available.

Writers must read books because writers must know books the way plumbers know pipes. Watching TV shows and movies does not cut it. Books and movies are different art forms and there are different tricks of the trade. Movies and television shows are created out of a groupthink process which involves input from dozens of people besides the head writer. Books nearly always come out of one person’s head.

When we are children, we can read whatever appeals to us. We may decide later in life that the books we used to like were substandard or filled with propaganda for an author’s viewpoint, but our childhood books were good enough for us at the time.

Once we identify as writers, we need to widen our reading. It’s not enough to just read what we like, or snap up the latest book from the handful of authors we have come to trust. As writers, books and the ideas we get from books are our tools. And we need enough tools to make stories of our own.

First, we need to read in the genre that we are writing in. Not just older books in that genre. You need to know what people are writing in the genre right now. You may come across some dreadful things. Feel free to give that author a pass next time. But you need to know your genre. There is nothing sadder than a science fiction author who only reads science fiction stories from the 1950s, and tries to copy that in his fiction.

Second, we need to read good literature. When I was in college, it seemed that ‘good literature’ meant Ernest Hemingway and I couldn’t stand Ernest Hemingway. But I found other good authors to love. I even took a class on the works of C. S. Lewis once. And I had read Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare on my own before I even got old enough for college. Now, the disadvantage on good literature is that when we want to read more recent good literature, it’s hard to find. Instead, we get fiction that’s loved by the progressive-university crowd that has a lot of political correctness but is not readable by ordinary people the way Charles Dickens’ books were.

Third, we need to read non-fiction of interest by qualified authors. With the advent of self-publishing, there is a lot of dreck out there being published by people who know little to nothing of their own topic, but who have read an ebook on how you can make money writing non-fiction. We don’t want to read that. We want to read books by people who know things. A book on ancient Egypt by an archeologist who can read ancient Egyptian and knows the names of the Pharoahs by heart. A book about a prison camp in WW2 written by one of the prisoners who survived. A memoir about growing up in Venezuela or Nepal, by someone who had that experience. Reading that kind of book gives you more writing ideas. It also makes you a better informed person.

Do we need to read every book that is ‘hot’ right now? I don’t think so. The Western writer Louis L’Amour, whose novels can still be bought in Walmarts today, once wrote a poem about how he hadn’t read the novel ‘Gone With The Wind’ when that was the novel everyone was reading. We can skip popular fiction that doesn’t appeal to us, because there is always always more coming along. Now, if there is something ‘hot’ and exciting that is in your genre and is something your readers probably will read, if you choose not to read it you should at least learn a little bit about it.

Where will you find time for all that reading? The same way you find time for writing your novel and for doing writing-related social media— you make the time. You look at your schedule and find bits of time you can re-purpose. Some of us read when we are doing other things— I often have a book handy when I’m watching TV, so I can read during the commercials. Some folks listen to audio books when commuting or doing housework. Whatever it takes. Your reading time is part of creating your identity as a professional writer, who is someone who has to read because it’s part of the job.

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