I’ve noticed a curious anxiety among some writers who teach writing about coming across as supposedly elitist when they discuss reading with their students. While these writers themselves are often ambitious readers and may complain to their peers about how little their students read, in the same breath they often say it doesn’t matter what the students read as long as they read, and it is not their role to pass judgement on their choices.
Such an attitude might be beneficial for certain teachers, as it could render them more likeable in a classroom. But this definitely doesn’t benefit any budding writers themselves, or any writers really, at whatever stage of our writing lives we are. Because reading choices (and yes, I take full responsibility for ‘passing judgement’) are not a trivial matter. Reading is usually a writer’s most important means of learning, but can also work against our development.
Just for the record, Hitler was an avid reader; his private library contained more than sixteen thousands books and he would often finish a book a day. And yet, as much as some recent scientific studies like to stress (not unlike some writing teachers) that any book you read is good for you and – amongst many other benefits – will make you wiser and more empathic, I suspect neither wisdom nor empathy were Hitler’s strongest points. The thing about his reading was that although he did it voraciously, he chose his books through the prism of his views (Henry Ford’s anti-Semitic book, The International Jew, was one of his favourites). He read for affirmation rather than for enquiry.
Hitler is an extreme example, but he, too, was sort-of-a-writer, even if it’s a stretch to class propaganda as literature. So what then can we take from this story? My point is if we wish to read in a way that will change us for the best, whether as writers or humans, we must read beyond our comfort zone. This is why last year I read Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. Evolutionary psychology, with which Pinker is aligned, is a discipline I treat with suspicion. Yet this was a wonderful book. Although I don’t agree with all its arguments, it affected in some ways how I now think and write.
Venturing out of our comfort zone doesn’t just mean reading books that may challenge our worldviews. I am talking here also about the importance of reading writers who are pure genius. The idea that reading exceptionally brilliant writers is good for you may sound like stating the obvious rather than an invitation for a challenge. But I actually find that I, and many writers I know, don’t do enough of that. Of course those of us who write seriously tend to read what you could call ‘worthy’ books. Or so I hope. Clever, thought provoking novels a la Ian McEwan (whose books I often enjoy), or candid and well-written memoirs, such as Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, can be relatively easy, absorbing reads and we can also learn a lot from them. But reading geniuses – now that is intimidating (Nabokov, I’m talking about you). At least for me. Not only because such reading requires all my brain-power, but also because I know I’ll never be able to write even a fraction as well as these authors do.
And yet, in my view we must read precisely those writers who wound our writerly egos the most. Those writers who, when we read them, we feel like putting a bullet through our skulls, or at the very least re-training as accountants. Reading great literature teaches us to embrace freshness not only in how we use language but also in how we look at the world. And anyway, these two go hand in hand. Proust put it better when he wrote: ‘Style for the writer, no less than colour for the painter, is a question not of technique but of vision.’
When I do read geniuses, I feel their works turn me more thoughtful, more alert to life. I have never looked at cats the same way since reading how Nabokov’s character from The Gift ‘nearly tripped over the tiger stripes which had not kept up with the cat as it jumped aside’. Whereas while reading how Didion realised she had had enough of New York when ‘everything that was said to me I seemed to have heard before, and I could no longer listen’, I felt she articulated my own feelings from the time I decided to leave Israel. That is another thing about geniuses: they often tell us what we already know but more precisely and confidently. Reading great works can encourage us to dare and describe the world through our unique prisms, to dare to say that the sun is not always yellow, as we are told to believe, but can also appear green when peeping through the foliage outside our window.
These days, if I start feeling I can write just as well as the particular author I am reading, or even better than they, then I know it is not a time to feel smug, but to pick a different book, the kind of a book that is likely to send me into depression. Because although I’m certain that even if I read Nabokov every day I will never even be ten percent as good a writer as him, it is possible that some of his greatness could somehow rub off onto my pages.
But there is more to be said about how crucial our reading choices can be for our work. Let’s now move further down the literary continuum, towards the more formulaic, and less demanding of our attention, literature which, in our postmodernist, super-democratic times, we often feel uneasy about critiquing. Because, hey, all points of view are equally valid, aren’t they? But I believe that reading such books not only doesn’t add anything to our artistic development, but actually impedes it. This belief is rooted in personal experience.
I began my reading career as a formidable, even quite insane, reader. I read War and Peace at the age of eight. I’m not saying I understood much of it, but the ambition was there. By the time I had my bat mitzvah, I had been through Chekhov’s collected works twice. I published my first book at twenty. It wasn’t that good, but the fact that I managed to produce a publishable novel at that age was, I believe, mostly due to my reading habits.
I published my second, and better I think, book at 25. But somewhere in my early twenties, just as I was finishing writing that collection of short fiction, I lost my reading nerve – a situation which lasted for some years. During that time I was mostly a body. I smoked and drank and fell in lust all the time. I danced until dawn. I kept bad company. This is a crude summary of an intense period in my life, and if you look at nuances you get a more complicated picture. I still read then, all the time. And I still went through phases of being obsessed with such geniuses as Milan Kundera. But during that time I also read a lot of what you might call ‘chic lit’ and ‘crime writing’, although in the literary landscape of Israel of 1990s, where I then lived, nobody bothered with such definitions. We just divided literature into ‘light’ and ‘heavy’, and I was reading too much in the former category – books that traded in linguistic, emotional and moral banalities.
No wonder my writing at the time turned as flat as pita bread. Luckily, clichéd language hasn’t stuck to me, but psychologically I stopped digging deeply. A wise editor who was then working with me on my third book gave me feedback I never forgot. He said: ‘You took the readers through the main streets of your novel, but not the back alleys.’ I sure did. No wonder this happened, since many of the books I read at the time – while my concentration dwindled, giving in to my body – didn’t even reach the main streets and mostly hung out in the suburbs.
My third book ended up not the improvement on my second I hoped it would be. It sold better than my first two, but I suspect this was due to its relative lightness. While it wasn’t exactly chick lit, or so I hope, it – as my editor pointed out – skimmed the surface of emotions. Now, I wasn’t after sales but wanted to grow as an artist and when I saw that my writing hadn’t improved, this realisation shocked me enough for me to reclaim my former, better, reading habits.
There is no diplomatic way around it: poor reading choices dumb us down. Some books can spoil our thinking by inundating us with readymade views and instant, easy moralizing, such as the division of characters into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ ones. The simplification of human nature is what all bad literary works have in common, and many are also filled with didactic messages and irritatingly sensible characters scarcely reflecting the nuttiness of the psyche. Such books often sell well exactly because they mask the sheer unpredictability of humanity and thus can be digested easier. Sometimes they can teach us about the craft of writing, but never about its art. I’m not saying it’s bad to read for entertainment only. I, too, do this occasionally (although these days I can’t be entertained by anything mindless). But mostly, the serious writers I know read for their lives.