Friday, March 7, 2008

On Reading

I have been listening to Stephen King's On Writing in my car this week. My twin brother gave me this book for Christmas the year it came out, and I devoured it before the new year began. It had quite an affect on me in several ways. One, because I was writing predominantly memoir, I was appreciative of that part of the book, and wrote several of my own literacy narratives in response. Two, his chapter on the importance of being a reader really struck a chord. At the time, I had just completed my bachelors degree and had just begun my masters, and "pleasure reading" had been moved to the back burner -- no, the back of the fridge in an old tupperware container to get moldy and crusty. Not only that, but I'd been harboring insecurities about what consitituted being "well read" and feared I fell way short.

I suppose that what I read at the time met the needs of what I'd written at the time -- a lot of academic argument, textbooks, case studies, etc. And let's not forget all the student writing I had (and have) to get through. In the literal sense, I was very well-read. I was reading all the time. But King's words gnawed at me. This wasn't the kind of reading he was advocating, at least I didn't think it was. I have to read more fiction, I decided. Or more memoirs, since that was what I was writing at the time.

But I was so damn picky. Besides, I complained, I just don't have time for pleasure reading.

I'm trying to remember when I got really serious and committed to reading. I know it was a New Year's resolution, one of the few I've kept, I just don't remember which year. But I started with books that I knew or authors that I liked (I started reading Nora Ephron's stuf, for instance) and then went to work on books that my twin or someone else I admired recommended to me. My reading The Great Gatsby (Fitzgerald), Life of Pi (eek, his name is on the tip of my tongue! So sorry!), A Prayer For Owen Meany (Irving), and A Hundred Years of Solitude (Marquez) was the result of the guy I'd had a crush on putting these books into my hand (he bought Owen Meany for me from a used bookstore, and it took me a year to even open it, since I was devastated that he did not return my affections) -- of them, I had the most difficulty w/ Solitude. One of my good friends described it as "trying to ride a merry-go-round and watch a movie at the same time... I liken it to a fever dream" and I never did finish the last ten pages before returning the book to Mr. I-Just-Wanna-Be-Friends. Interestingly, I don't think he ever read a single book I recommended.

In between all that, I picked books up here and there, and discovered audiobooks to ease my commute when I was traveling across state lines daily for awhile. I usually chose audiobooks based on things I wouldn't normally pick up to actually read. I got the Harry Potter books done that way, a couple of John Grisham novels, and more, some memorable, some not. I fell in love w/ both Bill Bryson's voice and writing thanks to audiobooks.

The result of this, plus watching the West Wing and becoming a pathetic Aaron Sorkin fan, was that my writing -- in particular, my fiction writing -- got good.

And I finally started reading chick-lit when I'd realized that's what I was writing. Yes, it's not like I was a chick-lit fan prior to that. It helped especially during the agent-query process and the pitch, because now I had something to match my book up against. More importantly, I saw what I didn't want to write in terms of the genre. I also knew I was on the right track, and dammit, I have good ideas. And guys like my stuff too... I think I've already established that.

Something else happened, too. I had always liked to read, but I think in the last few years I've fallen in love with reading, and that feeling grows stronger the older I get. My wombmate actually works in a bookstore, and I know it's because he likes the feeling of being surrounded by the books. I know how he feels now.

A few weeks ago, I had a class in which my students started asking me what kinds of books I liked to read, and had I ever read this guy or that gal, and they shared the one or two books that they'd read and liked. I suspected they just wanted to get out of the day's work, but something really wonderful was happening. I sense they were getting a whiff of the passion I had for reading, and very much wanted to like it too.
"I just can't concentrate on a whole book," one of them said. "I just don't have time," said another. And I knew these excuses all too well. I also knew they bred an insecurity underneath: if I'm not "well-read" will I also not be well-liked?
"So read in small increments. Read ten minutes a day. Read the sports page daily. Read your favorite graphic novel. It counts. Read a blog. Read something short. Then work your way up."
Their eyes lit up at the possibility, at the permission, at the acceptance. Right on.

So thanks, Stephen. Good advice, there.

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