I got into a discussion today about reading. Inspired by a forum post over on NaNoWriMo, I asked myself the question:
Can you be a good writer without being a reader?
As I was growing up, I was a voracious reader. We were poor, so I couldn’t afford a lot of books (although honestly, I doubt my parents could have afforded my reading appetite even if we weren’t poor… reading 4-5 books a week is expensive!) so we went to the library at least once every two weeks. I would check out an enormous stack of books, mostly from the science fiction section (back when Fantasy was lumped in with them all) and read them all. Most could be read in a day. Some heavier tomes with heavier themes might take a day or two.
These early reading experiences shaped my writing in incalculable ways. It shaped my understanding of how interesting stories are told. It helped me to understand how I could reach my own readers. It taught me language, a love of words, and a vast vocabulary that to this day occasionally confounds my friends and family. I cut my writing teeth on Isaac Asimov, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Anne McCaffrey, and Neal Stephenson. I learned about tropes and cliches before I knew what they were.
So that begs the question. Can you be a great writer, or even an adequate one, without reading? If you don’t “like to read”, can you ever be a true writer?
I would say both yes, and no. Reading shapes who we are, and what we do. Many of us here no doubt grew up devouring books. It’s part of what gives us the drive to write! Can you write without reading? Sure. There are tons of different styles of writing. Poetry is a deeply personal expression that depends less on what other people are doing, and more on what you’re thinking and wanting to express. Short stories are very different from long fiction. A screenplay is a different art form altogether, and relies more on the movies you watch than the books you read.
But honestly? I strongly feel that you don’t become a great writer, or even a good one, without reading. Reading expands your mind and broadens your interest. The stories I write today are very much a reflection of the books I read yesterday. Novelists, particularly, need to read the same way a farmer must learn about plants and seeds, the way a carpenter has to learn how tools operate, and how to bang nails in a way that won’t shatter the wood.
Reading is the writer’s university, the authors of those books are your professors.
What books did you read growing up that shaped your love of writing?
I used to read a lot. There wasn’t a library near me when I was growing up, so the county library sent the Bookmobile — a van/bus-like thing lined with bookshelves. The Bookmobile came every week and parked in a church parking lot in town. I’d ride my bike the three miles over to it and I’d load up bags and backpacks with whatever books I could. There was a “two book limit”, but the librarian liked me and would let me take six or seven books each time. She learned my preference for Sci-Fi and would pick out books for me during the week, stashing them behind the little checkout counter in the bookmobile so that they’d be there for me each week. It was awesome. Clearly, the things I enjoyed reading shaped the things I wrote, because why would I write things I wouldn’t enjoy reading?
Nowadays, I hardly have time to read. I went a good long stretch between books (over a year) before I finally got down to the business of reading one a few months ago. My love of reading hasn’t waned… but my lack of free time has dictated it. I do think this has hurt my creativity in my writing. So I need to get more reading into my schedule. For Christmas, I received several books on CD and this has been great. I can “read” while I do other things, too, which makes it possible to get through a few books within the time I have. It’s not the same, of course, but it’s a start.
The books I enjoyed as a kid which I am sure have been part of my writing progression include: *anything* by Isaac Asimov, but especially the “Foundation” series. “Dune” by Frank Herbert. “Songs of Distant Earth” by Arthur C. Clarke. And, of course, the “Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” series by Douglas Adams.
Ah, the Bookmobile! We had one in our town too because it was quite rural. However, I simply insisted on going to the library–there’s something about the smell of a library… Interesting that you mention the books on tape/CD. My only time available to listen to them would be in the car and I’d be so caught up in my mind’s eye that I’d lose focus on the highway. I now make time especially for reading and since I can’t work in silence, it works out–I can read whilst the family is watching the evening news, etc.
There is some research out there that suggests we don’t learn certain forms of expression unless we encounter them reading. Particularly complex sentence structure is learned through reading, for example.
I wonder if there are any studies that look at writers’ and their reading experiences. I know the general understanding is exactly as you shared: good writers are (or have been at some point in their lives) heavy readers.
For myself, I fell in love with someone who is just as much of an introvert as I am, which resulted in one summer in which I read about 20 books. Four in one day. I miss those days right now. I recently discovered James Baldwin, but have to turn the book back to the library (late) having only read 15 pages.
My favorite authors vary, but include Ursula Le Guin, Barbara Hambly (fantasy novels), Patricia McKillip, Patrick Rothfuss… My big surprise as a writer: I don’t often write Fantasy.
Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern are my favorite books ever, with the Crystal Singer trilogy a close second, and I’ve never been tempted to write fantasy because I feel like I could never even come close to creating something as amazing at the Federated Sentient Planets.
I loved reading the “Three Investigator” series as a kid. Ate up all of them I could find and figured out how to use the card catalog and inter-library loan to get the others.
A couple of years ago, I found some in a thrift store bargain bin. It was disappointing to see that they do not hold up very well. Poorly written and clunky, to say the least. However, they served a critical purpose in that they inspired reading and kept the flames stoked high. When I’d read them all, I turned to other books. What more could one ask of a series?
We had Bookmobile, too! And a teeny tiny town library, which was in the attic of the town hall. There was no tv in my house growing up – it broke when I was about 6, and that was it. Books were all I had, and I was a voracious reader. My mom started writing in my own books how long it took me to read them – or how short, most of the time. I, too, can trace my vocabulary to reading. I started John Jakes’ American Bicentennial Series when I was a pre-teen, which provided me many lessons in vocab and context!
Love that picture. I want that for my home.
You struck my attention, a I’m not sure how I feel about that.
It helps to remember that we exist at a highly arrogant, self indulgent time. Countless people read and do not feel compelled to take the reigns of a writer. Can you read without being a writer?
I think this question is a distracting trick, like a cheesecake. No one actually needs it, but its a nice naughty feeling. We all know the answer is not absolute, it is a gray mix.
I am lured by words. I collect them from books, newspaper columns (we still get one delivered to our house each morning), magazine articles, the Internet, and add them to my list of special words. Writers were my heroes and I aspired to be like the ones I loved the most. I’d read a great book by a writer and sleuth other books by same, reading a whole library of an author’s works, pulling out words and saving them. For decades I wanted to write but didn’t. Still I read, collecting words, images, sensations, adventures. And then one day, I wrote. A children’s book, long hand, and finally typed on a library typewriter while my youngest son played at pre-school. That book didn’t kick start a writing career but my reading educated me. I know what good writing looks like and I’ll read a book two or three times. I aim for good writing with those words I love and can’t imagine not having a book or two or five at my side.