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?