A lot of what I post here is stuff that is meant to be helpful to other writers, and artists. And sometimes I get into the nitty gritty little details, like yesterday I wrote about the benefits of investing in good paper and pencils. Admittedly that is paying attention to the details. This got me thinking that I hadn’t said anything yet about the single most important way to gather ideas, creativity, and skill if you are an aspiring writer. It is so obvious it gets over looked sometimes. The most important thing a writer can do to be a better writer is to read a lot of good books. It is that simple.
Books expose you to the best ideas and voices available throughout all of humanity. They are a time machine. They are a ticket to go and sit down and have coffee and an intellectual discussion with the greatest geniuses of the past few thousand years. They are an invitation to have a heart to heart with the all of the great teachers and sages of human history. They are also more entertaining, and filled with better stories than all that crap streaming on Netflix right now.
A lot has been said about how soaking in the writing of others is important to learning, if you want to write. So I won’t dwell on it too much. I think we writers are lucky, we all have access to the same tools, the same letters, the same language. So when you read a sentence by Hemingway or Cormac McCarthy, or whoever you admire, you can plainly see what they are working with, and as soon as you have that a-ha moment—”oh, I see what they did there” then you can try to recreate it in your own work. It is easy for a writer to learn tricks of the trade from other writers because it is all there in plain sight. In other words it is easy to steal. And that is a good thing. I believe that every hour a writer spends reading is just as good for his/her craft, as practicing writing itself.
In fact rather then write more on the subject of reading, let me just outright steal two great quotes on reading, from books I read.
The real importance of reading is that it creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing; one comes to the country of the writer with one’s paper’s and identification pretty much in order. Constant reading will pull you into a place (a mind-set, if you like the phrase) where you can write eagerly and without self-concsciousness. It also offers you a constantly growing knowledge of what has been done and what hasn’t, what is trite and what is fresh, what works and what just lies there dying (or dead) on the page. The more you read, the less apt you are to make a fool of yourself with your pen or word processor.
But I read and read anyway, sometimes so fast that even I was surprised, and sometimes very slowly, as if each sentence or word were something good for my whole body, not just my brain. And I could read like that for hours, not caring whether I was tired and not dwelling on the inarguable fact that I was in prison because I had stood up for my brothers, most of whom couldn’t care less whether I rotted or not.I knew I was doing something useful. That was all that counted. I was doing something useful as the guards marched back and forth or greeted each other at the change of the shift with friendly words that sounded like obscenities to my ear and that, thinking about it now, might actually have been obscene. I was doing something useful. Something useful no matter how you look at it. Reading is like thinking, like praying, like talking to a friend, like expressing your ideas, like listening to other people’s ideas, like listening to music (oh yes), like looking at the view, like taking a walk on the beach.
— The character Barry Seaman, in Roberto Bolano’s novel 2666.