I was teaching a writing workshop on Saturday and the subject of reading came up, as it often does. Students are not surprised when I suggest that, if they really want to be writers, they also have to be readers. What does seem to surprise some of them, though, is how much reading I suggest they do as a minimum requirement for the writers’ life: a book a week for life.
“What? I don’t have the time for all that,” grumbles a student.
“Turn off the television,” I suggest.
“I don’t watch television, at least not much.”
“Get up earlier, then.”
“I already get up at six.”
At which point I just shrugged. Of course we can find excuses why we can’t possibly do something, but if it’s important to us, we’ll make the time. We’ll give up something to get something of greater perceived value. If you can’t find the time to read, I can’t imagine how you’ll be a writer. The two are inextricably connected.
Then, too, comes the question of what to read. I always ask students to read outside their comfort zone, as well as within it. Read what you love, certainly, but also read new things, books you might not ordinarily pick up, just to see if a new take on the world might shake up your own. Such things are good for readers and writers alike. As writers, we also read to see how other writers manage to craft such fantastic books, as well as determine why a book fails to engage us. Great books make great teachers.
A friend mentioned recently that she found a book I had recommended “challenging.” And perhaps it is, for the first person narrative voice is intimate, and the narrator spends a good deal of time pondering events in three different time periods, which is often the way the mind associates critical events. I admit, you do have to keep your wits about you when reading this wonderful book (The Bishop’s Man by Linden McIntyre), but the pay off is well worth it. It’s a thought-provoking and deeply compassionate work about a difficult subject (child abuse by Catholic priests), and a beautiful character study that captures perfectly a particular time and place.
This reminded me of a conversation I had not long ago with the fantastic Haitian/Quebec writer, Dany Laferriere. We were discussing readers’ responses to our work, which are sometimes baffling. Dany said a woman once approached him in something of a tizzy and asked him why his books were so difficult.
“Difficult?” he replied in his wonderful French-accented double bass voice, “Come now, why would you say this to me? Do I say this to you? Do I point out a passage in my book and tell you how difficult it was to write? Do I make notes next to a paragraph: This paragraph took me four hours to write! No, of course I don’t. I have done my job, and now, you must do yours.”
That cracked me up.
However, I’m not advocating writing difficult works just for the sake of it. That feels like nothing more than self-indulgence, and a little like the writer doesn’t like their readers very much. If, for example, a writer must explain that the hidden key to a book appears only in an obtuse allusion on page 79 to something which doesn’t actually appear in the text , as a very famous writer once said to Oprah, well, then. . . perhaps it’s a tad TOO obtuse. But generally, if we only read fast, easy books which do little to enrich us, do not make us question our assumptions, nor expand our sense of compassion, well, what’s the point? Pure entertainment? Sure, but how about that and a little (or a lot) more?
Here’s a challenge for you — back to that book a week. On the www.goodreads.com site — a fun and useful readers social networking site — you can keep track of the books you read, what you think of them, share that information with others if you like, and give yourself a reading challenge. How many books do you commit to reading this year? Put in that number, and as you enter more books, the site lets you know how you’re doing. I put in 52 books, and as of today, I’m 10 books ahead of schedule. Feel quite good about that, I do.
Care to join me? You’ll find me on the site — “Friend” me if you like, and maybe follow my reviews. It’s good crack as the Irish say, and that only means good fun, which you know if you’re Irish, or perhaps if you’ve read, “The Last House in Ulster” by Charles Foran, which I’m reading now.