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.”