When I was 10 years old, I was exploring the attic of my grandfather’s house when I discovered several large boxes, bound together with thick string and covered by years of dust. Out of a mischievous sense of curiosity, I opened one of those boxes and discovered a complete set of 30 well preserved books called The Rover Boys. They had that musty smell of books that had been in boxes for decades. I opened box after box and my eyes widened as I saw more and more similar books, including The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and Tom Swift.
Each title was a part of a series of popular juvenile books published between 1899 and 1926, and reprinted for many years afterwards. I think my grandfather had bought them at a yard sale for a few bucks and given them to my dad who in turn packed them away after he read them, not knowing that many years later, his son would discover them with the same enthusiasm that Thomas Edison must have felt with that first light bulb.
I read one of those Rover Boy books and became obsessed, devouring one after the other. I couldn’t put them down. I even took them to bed with me and read under the cover of bed sheets with a flashlight until I finally drifted off to sleep. And I was happy as could be, immersing myself into adventure stories – imaging myself as actually being in those stories – but knowing that would never happen. When I read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn I could “see” myself floating down the Mississippi River on a raft. It was better than watching TV which I was hardly ever allowed to do when I was growing up.
And that makes me a little saddened.
Because much of the writing I see comes from people who don’t read. Sure, they might read newspapers and magazines, and write mediocre blogs for websites. And maybe that’s good enough. But I’ve read my share of fluff ground out by blog-writing machines that churn out paragraphs like a machine churns out sausages. To me, many blogs today are like reheated leftovers from dinner the night before. I want something substantive. I want to be entertained and amused and informed, but most of all, I want to read something by someone who has read something substantive.
There’s a whole generation of kids (including my own) growing up reading only what they need to read to get through school. But once they get home, they rush to their X-Boxes and Play Stations and other video games and battle each other into the night. I can only hope that once my child gets to high school and college he will be given so much required reading that he won’t have an opportunity to do anything else. Because I know he will be a better person for it.
My oldest childhood friend, Andy Thibault, is a prolific writer http://cooljustice.blogspot.com/ . He told me something once that writers need to read. A lot. Magazines. Books. Periodicals. Anything you can get your hands on. Writers need to grasp the art of language, to appreciate the finer points of words. As they read, they should jot down ideas and capture thoughts as they come. That’s what Andy does. I’m trying to develop the same habit. Nothing inspires a writer like reading someone else’s words.
As a writer, you’ll find yourself hitting plateaus and roadblocks when you aren’t reading. You’ll run out of words, if you’re not regularly being challenged through books and other material.
This is an important step to becoming a good writer. But for those of you who sometimes struggle to follow through with projects (like I do), this may discourage you. You may doubt you can do this. If so, remember:
It’s not about finishing.
Many people read books just to get through them. This is not always necessary. You can and should read books or articles just to read them, even scan them — to glean new ideas, learn new words, and fall back in love with writing.
Don’t worry too much about completion; just start. Here’s how you can begin, according to one blogger I came across. He said: Don’t read to accomplish anything. You don’t need to read to finish what you’re reading. Just read to read. Don’t neglect this discipline. Make reading a habit, a personal passion. And be sure to read widely.
Study language. As a writer, words are your lifeblood. You are sustained by reading because it is the single best tool to lead you to good writing. Read anything – just get started. If you don’t know where to start, begin with some Hemingway, or Grisham, or Capote, or Dickens. Or go back and read some of the stuff you were “forced” to read in school. Like Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger.
Read what others are reading. Not sure where to start? Read what other writers recommend. Go to Google to find out what they are. Make a list. If you need something new to get back into reading, buy a Kindle. Are you ready to get started — to become a student of words once again and fall back in love with the art of language? You’d better be. Because the bottom line is: You can’t be the writer you hope to be if you don’t read what you need to read.
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