Reading for Writing

It started out of a sense of shame.

Despite a degree in English, I was embarrassed to realize I’d read only a handful of The Modern Library’s “100 Greatest Novels of the 20th Century.” It wasn’t the fault of my program or my many excellent professors; I’d just chosen to focus on the practical skills in my major: writing, editing, publishing. I didn’t realize then what I do now, which is that to be a good writer you must first be a good reader.

I’ve always been bookish, sure, but I’d managed to avoid anything really challenging. I’d spent whole years after college thinking I hated Faulkner or Wharton (How wrong I was!). It took a few years, but I slowly worked my way through the long list of classics, powering through eye-straining passages of Henry James and emerging dazed from James Joyce. My focus and concentration improved. I noticed literary trends and influences. I started getting more of the references made in The New Yorker and on “Gilmore Girls.” I challenged myself to read other serious works of literature — did you think we’d get through this story without my mentioning War & Peace? – and was startled to find that “the classics” often earn that title not for being hard, but for being really good.

Reading can benefit anyone —research shows it improves memory function and boosts emotional intelligence —but reading is especially important for those of us who write. Close reading of the classics changed how I read other text, from The New York Times to clients’ op-eds. I noticed how my writing has been influenced by my mentor, Dick Jones, and how his writing (far better than mine) often shares the dry wit of O. Henry. 

Writing may be a skill, but it’s also an art. Grammar, punctuation and technique can be taught, but style and facility with language can only be absorbed by exposure to writers who are a lot better than you are. I know I’m not yet up to Tolstoy’s standards, but with a few more chapters I might get there.