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Reading Books You “Should” Read v. Reading Books You Want

In his book on the craft of writing, Stephen King condensed his advice down to two simple axioms:

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”

Hard to argue. But where do you start… reading, that is?

If you’re a writer, there’s no shortage of recommendations about what you should be reading. It is assumed that writers should read in their genre. Writing apocalyptic? Read The Stand.  Writing YA? Read Twilight. We’re also told to read “the masters” of a given genre, the stalwarts of their respective industry. Writing Gothic? Read Bronte.  Writing classic Romance? Read Austin. Writing contemporary Romance? Read Sparks. Then there’s the books that are trending, on the cusp of “what’s hot.” Writers are also expected to read “the classics.” Nothing quite puts a damper on a writer’s discussion like admitting you’ve never read Flaubert, Tolkien, Dickens, or Tolstoy.

And here’s where I make a confession: I often get bored reading. Real bored. Real fast. Strangely enough, this often occurs with books I should be reading.

Perhaps it’s just my ADHD. But if I’m not gripped by a.) The story, or b.) Great writing, I’ll seldom slog through to the end of a book. My office is littered with half-finished books that I was supposed to read. Which creates a problem.

I feel guilty for not finishing some books. Especially those that I should be reading.

On the other hand, is it wise to waste time reading something that isn’t gripping me?

Maybe this is why I find Stephen Koch’s advice in The Modern Writer’s Workshop so refreshing.

…please, don’t sink into this woeful nonsense about not having time to read. Find it. Make it. How much time each day do you give to TV? To the daily paper? The crossword? The real culprit here is almost never your schedule. It is boredom — your boredom with the books you think you are supposed to read. Find a book that you want, a book that gives you real trembling excitement, a book that is hot in your hands, and you’ll have time galore.

This notion that aspiring authors are “supposed to read” certain books is pervasive in writers’ circles. It can also be rather detrimental (besides for making a long “must-read” list). Koch describes this as “obligatory reading,” as something we should resolve to get over:

All serious education necessarily involves a certain amount of obligatory reading. That is how it has to be and exactly as it ought to be. Yet this essential aspect of growth does have a dangerous downside: It can darken all reading under the dull shadow of obligation. At a certain moment in your life as a writer, you should resolve to read only what matters to you. Not what people say should matter. What does. You should seek that out relentlessly, find it, and then you should read and read and read. (bold mine)

My earlier stage of writing was characterized by “obligatory reading.” Now, I’ve swung almost entirely to the opposite extreme.  I read mostly what I want. And if I’m not getting into what I should be reading, I stop.

Another confession: Very few books give me that “real trembling excitement” Koch speaks about. So when I DO get my hot little hands on something that grips me, I tear it up. Thing is, most of these are not in my genre, they’re not books I should be reading. Here’s five more recent books that I would put in the Couldn’t Put It Down category:

  • The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
  • Peace Like a River, by Lief Enger
  • The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss
  • Odd Thomas, by Dean Koontz
  • The Monstrumologist, by Rick Yancey

With the exception of Odd Thomas, maybe The Monstrumologist, these books are outside my genre. The weird thing I’ve found is that reading outside my genre seems to inspire me more than reading what I’m supposed to. Not sure how that works. But reading Peace Like a River fired me up to want to write better. Even though I’ll probably never write anything close to that genre.

So I guess the moral of the story is: It’s okay to have an “obligatory reading” list. But if some those books aren’t making it onto your Couldn’t Put It Down list, perhaps you should forgo what you should be reading for what gives you “real trembling excitement.”

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{ 32 comments… add one }
  • Deborah March 12, 2014, 5:54 AM

    Who keep telling people to read Twilight to new YA authors to learn about YA????? Whoever you are, please stop. Please.

    • Mike Duran March 12, 2014, 6:19 AM

      Well, I guess that shows what I know about YA. Twilight used to be the YA rage, right?

      • Kat Heckenbach March 12, 2014, 6:24 AM

        Twilight got crazy popular, but NOT from good writing. There are soooooooo many other YA books that could be looked at as examples of great YA writing.

        The Hunger Games
        The Mortal Instruments series and The Infernal Devices series
        Any book by Maggie Stiefvater
        Any book by Nova Ren Suma
        Jay Asher, Laini Taylor, Scott Westerfeld, Kelly Creagh….I could go on for hours.

        But not Twilight.

        • D.M. Dutcher March 12, 2014, 7:31 AM

          I’d add Robert Cormier, Paul Zindel, S.E. Hinton (for all her faults,) John Christopher, Caroline Cooney, Zilpha Keatley Snyder, and Francesca Lia Block.

  • Kat Heckenbach March 12, 2014, 5:57 AM

    First, I have to say: On what planet is anyone saying you “should” read Twilight if you write YA????? ‘Cause I’m in BIG trouble then, since I couldn’t make it past chapter six. 😛

    Second, I will never tire of telling you in regards to The Monstrumologist: Told ya so!!! 😀

    Third, there are so many “should” read books out there that I can’t get into. Classics, both in and out of my genre. I stopped feeling guilty a long time ago about not liking certain books that I “should.” Like the Dragonriders of Pern series. I am a fantasy writer and a dragon nut, and yet I don’t think I made it more than two chapters into the first Pern book before wanting to drown myself from boredom.

    Fourth, I don’t think it’s hurt you one bit to not read gobs in “your” genre, Mike. You read, period, and you read well-written books–that’s what’s important. I read tons of books both in and out of “my” genre. I think that expanding beyond your genre helps to make you a richer writer.

    • Samuel Choy March 12, 2014, 10:22 AM

      I’ve never been able to make it through a “Pern” book either. I’ve also never been able to get through are any of the books in Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series. Ugh! Boring.

      • StuartB March 12, 2014, 12:57 PM

        Oooh, loved the Sword of Truth series, kept me riveted. I think I read the last three books in one week.

        Being unemployed at the time helped.

  • D.M. Dutcher March 12, 2014, 7:26 AM

    It’s something you read because it’s the ur-example of a lot of YA paranormal tropes, not because it’s good writing. Girl protagonist, two boy love interests, love triangle, paranormal focus, dark almost villainous love interest. Passive mary-sueish heroine. So on. Very few books radically changed a genre as much as it did, for all its faults.

    • Kat Heckenbach March 12, 2014, 7:32 AM

      That’s part of the problem, though. It radically changed YA fiction to the point that you now can hardly get away from those tropes.

      That said, The Hunger Games helped swing the pendulum the other way. And I’m SO happy to see that there is some great YA coming out with *male* protags! The Rithmatist, Steelheart, The Paladin Prophecy, This Dark Endeavor. Happy, happy :).

      • D.M. Dutcher March 12, 2014, 8:12 AM

        The boys thing is difficult. There always were boy-friendly YA books; Darren Shan’s Cirque du Freak comes to mind, and the Redwall series. You had the Alex Rider books and Gary Paulsen’s stuff. All of those sold really well.

        I think with fantasy and sf though video games have siphoned off a lot of male interest in reading. It used to not be the case, even with popular systems of the past, but once the Playstation 2 generation of consoles hit, games became compelling enough, social enough and long enough to dominate books instead of coexist with them.

  • Johne Cook March 12, 2014, 7:34 AM

    I don’t care a fig for what I ‘should’ read – I read what I like. And I’ll drop a boring book faster than you can say ‘Squirrel!’

    I’d always limited my reading largely to SF/F genre territory until I read a review from Orson Scott Card of a Walter Mosley book about Easy Rawlins. I don’t know anything about the Mystery / Suspense genre (other than the entire collection of Alastair MacLean, whose works appeared in my father’s legendary paperback library when I was growing up). I read the Mosley work and was instantly smitten. It’s not the sort of thing I seek out generally, but I pretty much read anything he writes because he’s so good, the real deal.

  • Jill March 12, 2014, 7:40 AM

    I don’t have time to read “should” books. I read what I want. I read mostly nonfiction. I’m sure that’s highly detrimental to my fiction-writing. But I don’t care. I just realized that, currently, all the books loaded on my Kindle are fiction–4 spec fic and 1 mystery. Cool! 🙂

  • Carradee March 12, 2014, 8:06 AM

    Nicolas Sparks isn’t romance. Women’s fiction, yes. Romantic, sure. Romance, no. Romance genre requires happy endings. A better example of contemporary romance would be Nora Roberts.

    But as far as books you “should” be reading, there aren’t any objective books every writer should read. (I’d count the Bible as something everyone should read, if they’re literate, but that’s regardless of occupation.)

    Some writers are helped by reading books in the genre which they write; others are helped by writing outside it. The only comes when you’re intentionally seeking to break genre conventions or to make fun of a particular book—if you’re going to do that, you’ll most likely have to read the genre/book you’re speaking of in order to accomplish what you’re attempting.

    Personally, I’ll sometimes force myself to finish something that isn’t gripping me, but only when I recognize that something will help me as an editor and/or writer. Even then, I have to be in the right mood to read it—but I certainly won’t say every writer “should” read a particular book.

    Even if you do need exposure to a particular genre for a project you have in mind, any genre will have more than one major author. A good friend and I both enjoy urban fantasy, but we can hardly stand each others’ favorite authors in the genre—and both our favorite authors are major sellers.

  • Melissa Ortega March 12, 2014, 8:11 AM

    While I was growing up my dad created a rule in our house requiring me to read one non-fiction book for every fiction book for fear that I would do nothing but gobble up fiction – trash fiction. Because they held the same thrills of storytelling that fiction did, I tended to bide my non-fiction time with biographies.

    Since then, I’ve thought once or twice that maybe I was robbed a little of books that I could have read during those years, but in the end, I’m good with it. My Bible can be boring at times too, but so can vegetables. In the long run, they are good for me in spite of my boredom. And my un-put-downable books are even better because of the shoulds! They feel like a real treat or holiday when I pick them up!

    Everything in moderation! For me, if I don’t do this I WILL READ NOTHING BUT TRASH. My vocabulary (which already suffers) trickles to only faint signs of life and my brain begins to turn to slush. My reading skills actually wane.

    I will say that when I’m trying to encourage a non-reader, I really try to push them towards the fun stuff rather than the should stuff, because my experience is that when people who have read books still hate reading books, then they have usually been overburdened by the shoulds and need a good cleansing of the blahs.

  • Aaron Sharp March 12, 2014, 8:49 AM

    Mike,

    This is exactly a conversation that has been going on in my head (clearly a writer thing) for some time now. I am more and more deciding that I should give much more time to books I want to read. I still think it is good discipline to force myself to work through a book I “should” read even if I am bored, but I think I am going to give that less and less priority.

    Odd Thomas is a perfect example for me. I heard it was good, and could not put it down. It is not the type of book I write, but it is a fantastic piece of writing that I enjoyed.

  • StuartB March 12, 2014, 9:03 AM

    Could that thinking maybe be a holdover from when there weren’t as many books to read? The classics became popular not just because they were well written but because there wasn’t as much of a saturation. Maybe we are experiencing an oversaturation of too many good authors writing too many good books.

    Another good habit to get in to is pick an author or genre per season to read. For instance, every summer I read one Stephen King book, ironically because I was experiencing some insomnia so picked up Insomnia to read. Since then I’ve read through The Stand, all the Dark Tower books, Carrie, and Under the Dome, the last of which had a profound effect on my spiritual life and understanding of religious leadership. This year I’ll probably be reading The Shining by King unless I pick up his latest.

    • Josh March 13, 2014, 3:14 AM

      There have always been a lot of books to read, the “classics” are the ones that stood the test of time. Originally a “classic” would have been Greco-Roman literature such those by Ovid or Homer.

      I find there are books that don’t set my trembling, but I usually finish them (except for Brothers Karamazov and Bleak House) and usually I’m thankful I did. A lot of 19th century literature can be difficult to read because of style and vocabulary choices, but it is usually worth it to tough it out. Also, who does humor quite as well as Dickens or Austen?

  • Samuel Choy March 12, 2014, 9:12 AM

    Mike,

    Thank you for giving me the strength to return my library copy of A Dance with Dragons without feeling guilt that I gave up on reading a book by “The American Tolkien.” This is a true confession: because someone, somewhere gave him that title, I had a little pang of guilt in the back of my mind about giving up on the series. I’ve been trying for weeks to get through the thing, but it just seemed like more of the same. And I’m getting weary of all the suffering through the tawdry exploits of Martin’s host of sociopathic characters. Actually, the more of George Martin I read, the more I’m convinced that he’s no Tolkien.

    Back to the topic. For lack of a better phrase, I find myself guilty of doing things out of guilt. And because guilt is such a poor motivator, it rarely results in the formation of good, lasting habits, whether the habit is exercise or reading good literature. I think from now on, I’ll at least start to read something on a “should read” list. But if I loose interest, in the words of Johne Cooke, “Squirrel!”

  • Thea van Diepen March 12, 2014, 10:09 AM

    Aside from assigned reading at school, I’ve always read exactly what I wanted (unless the very, very few cases in which my parents said I wasn’t old enough, like when I was eight and asked about the Pern series). My mom also read books to me every night when I was little and still learning to read, and they were always books that I wasn’t yet able to read myself. Those times introduced and led me to books and authors I wouldn’t have otherwise read, and that I ended up enjoying.

    Which is what I see the list of “should read” books as: A tool to try out and possibly discover favourite authors you wouldn’t have discovered otherwise. It’s more like suggestions than anything else, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with you if you end up not liking them and putting them down before you finish reading them. They provide an opportunity to expand your horizons, but that’s it, and that’s all I think they should be, like a friend giving you recommendations based on their favourite books and (possibly) in the genres you tend to like.

    So long as you keep in mind that you can learn from everything you read, even if it’s what you don’t like and what you don’t ever want to do, it’s all good. 🙂

  • Linda March 12, 2014, 10:29 AM

    This reminds me of a conversation I had with the longtime owner of a trendy shop that specializes in rare/hard to find books. One of his occasional customers is apparently an author who is a household name. The author told the shop owner that he never reads books in his genre out of a concern that his own original writing style will be altered/diluted. I can appreciate that.

    My dilemma is that I have many friends who are independently published. I feel obliged to buy and read their books, but often I find I hate the plot/ characters/content. I don’t have it in me to be brutally honest with them. Of course, this makes for very awkward moments in the friendships.

  • Johne Cook March 12, 2014, 1:05 PM

    StuartB, do you live in Wisconsin?

    • StuartB March 16, 2014, 1:42 PM

      Sorry Johne, just now saw this. Nope, I currently live in Minneapolis, but I’ve got family in Wisconsin.

  • Joanna March 12, 2014, 2:16 PM

    Excuse my little fangirl freakout moment but…

    THE NAME OF THE WIND! I love that book and it, in combination with The Wise Man’s Fear ruined my life for two weeks! 😀 The next two weeks were ruined when I learned that the final book won’t be out for another 2(?) years! >_< … NOT okay. Just not okay….

    *Alright, fangirl is going back in her box now where she'll think angry thoughts against the author and wish him all speed in his writing endeavors.*

    • Joanna March 12, 2014, 2:20 PM

      I blame the terrible friend who loaned them to me without warning me about how the story drops off into soul-searing torment without a third book out yet to catch you. 😀 …. Nasty friend, cruel friend. Friend doesn’t warn us. No precious, not one little warn at all from that friend…..

  • David James March 14, 2014, 6:33 AM

    I’m so guilty of not finishing books, yet they are also books I’m excited to read. I really have to make sure I have time to read when I sit down. I am not one to catch a page here or there.

    Part of that is me having Aspergers Syndrome. I really need to have some alone time and have things as quiet as possible around me when I am reading. And you can just forget it if a fly enters the room! Most aggravating creature God invented outside of the flying gnat that buzzes one’s ear when walking around outside.

    I’ve got tons of Spec-Fic from a few years ago I bought which I haven’t read or finished reading yet which I even told the author I’d read. Ugh! And it’s not that I’m bored with them, I just have to find the time to sit down for it otherwise I am no good when reading them.

  • Katherine Coble March 14, 2014, 12:29 PM

    I’d say that you may not be required to read every book out there, but I will promise you two things:
    –if you don’t read widely it will show in your work as a detriment

    –if you aren’t conversant with the tropes in your genre it will show in your work to a detriment.

    I say this not as a writer but as a reader. I am the customer. I can tell when I download the sample on Amazon if you’re someone who just reads in your Genre and has no experience of fiction in general and I can tell if you’re someone who thinks they can write without reading a lot of books.

    And I won’t buy your book.

    By all means, yes. Read what you enjoy. But since when is anyone’s job 100% enjoyment? If you’re doing this as a job, spend at least 15% of your time reading outside your comfort zone. You don’t have to finish books you don’t enjoy, but by exposing yourself to them you can understand what works and what doesn’t work.

    I read about 150 books a year. I start about 250 books a year. Abandoning a book is an essential part of being both a good reader and a good writer.

  • Justin Sherman March 29, 2014, 12:14 PM

    Mike,

    I have been reading your blog for a while now and have enjoyed it very much! Unfortunately, though, every time I have been interested in commenting on one of your posts, I feel that I am behind because you always move on to another interesting topic! I had to say “thanks” for your refreshing comments, though, as I always have felt obligated to finish the books I find myself not enjoying as I slog into the middles (i.e., pacing too slow, characterization not internally consistent, etc.). Over the last year or so, I’ve only finished those that really compel me to do so, and I’ve been able to get through more books that way.

    Moving on to my question: what are the “can’t put down books” written in your genre over the past year or two?

    Signed: a guilty lurker

    • Mike Duran March 30, 2014, 6:46 AM

      Hey Justin, I appreciate you reading and commenting! That’s a tough question. Lately, I’ve been concentrating on non-fiction. And when I do read spec-fic, I don’t read a lot of Christian stuff. So some of my recommendations (including those mentioned in this post) will be older. Books in the spec-fic genre I would highly recommend would be: Demon: A Memoir by Tosca Lee, Arthur Machen’s short story collections, When the Day of Evil Comes by Melanie Wells, the Odd Thomas series by Dean Koontz, especially the first book and Brother Odd. I love Laird Barron’s stuff, but be forewarned, he is not a believer and his stories can be very unsettling.

      • Justin Sherman March 31, 2014, 9:11 PM

        Thanks, Mike! I haven’t read Tosca Lee yet, and I’ve heard other good things about the Odd Thomas series. I definitely need to check these out. I haven’t read anything from Laird Barron, but I have read much from Lovecraft without detriment, so I may check that out, too. My list includes Rubart, Dellosso, Parrish, Thrasher, and of course, Dekker, and your _The Resurrection_ (gushes, wonderful!). Looking to expand, so thank you for your recommendations!

  • Johne Cook March 29, 2014, 1:35 PM

    Hi, Justin,
    Thanks for popping in!

    I think there’s a handy link to get you started (I’ve read precisely three of these but it seems to be a solid list from what I’ve gathered):
    http://www.speculativefaith.com/features/list-of-2014-csa-nominations/

    • Justin Sherman March 31, 2014, 9:16 PM

      Yes, that looks like a fantastic list! Thanks, Johne!

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