How to read

In The Business of Being a Writer, Jane Friedman’s first chapter discusses “the gap”, the idea that a writer’s taste and a writer’s writing don’t necessarily match up in the first years. She writes “if you can’t perceive the gap (…) you probably aren’t reading enough. Writers can develop good taste and understand what quality work is by reading writers they admire and want to emulate.” (page 12)

There are lots of ideas and recommendations for what to read, including Francine Prose’s list. However, the attitude with which you can approach reading is also interesting. Mavis Gallant recommends reading what you love, what interests you. 

I think if you’re a writer, you’re going to write. What you have to do when you’re young is read a lot. And if the young person says to me, read what? I realize it’s a hopeless case. ‘Cause if you haven’t figured out what you’re going to read… You have to read your contemporaries first. Don’t read what you don’t like! Do not read what bores you! Don’t read anything that’s going to stultify you, that you have to drive yourself to read one more page. Forget it. Even if it’s a good reputation, it’s a wonderful writer, don’t do it! It’s not going to help you in any way. Read what you like, read what stimulates you, what interests you, that other world that is fiction. Get into it! (From documentary Paris Stories: The Writing of Mavis Gallant” at 40 minutes 30 seconds.)

Others, like Pamela Paul, argue you should read books that challenge you, and finish them, even if you hate them. Her article in the New York Times (April 15, 2017) begins:

Pick up a book you’re pretty sure you won’t like — the style is wrong, the taste not your own, the author bio unappealing. You might even take it one step further. Pick up a book you think you will hate, of a genre you’ve dismissed since high school, written by an author you’re inclined to avoid. Now read it to the last bitter page. (…)

This is not about reading a book you know is bad, a pleasure in its own right, like an exceptionally dashing villain. It’s about finding a book that affronts you, and staring it down to the last word.

Why does she recommend doing this? Because, she writes, “it helps you refine what you value” because, “you may find yourself developing a point of view” because, “you come to know where you stand, even if that means standing apart.”

Alain de Botton in How Proust Can Change Your Life, writes something similar: 

… we should be reading for a particular reason: not to pass the time, not out of detached curiosity, not out of a dispassionate wish to find out what Ruskin felt, but because, to repeat with italics, ‘there is no better way of coming to be aware of what one feels oneself than by trying to recreate in oneself what a master has felt.’ We should read other people’s books in order to learn what we feel; it is our own thoughts we should be developing, even if it is another writer’s thoughts that help us do so.

Recently Austin Kleon praised the art of marginalia. Me? I take notes!