The latest issue of Poets & Writers has an article “Myths We Live By, But Shouldn’t” by one David Galef.
The first myth he addresses is:
Don’t read — it’ll pollute the pure voice inside you.
To quote him directly:
No serious writer or teacher believes this, but it’s a cherished credo among some budding scribblers. They want to write, but they don’t want to read other writers for fear of being influenced by them…The choice not to read must be somewhat widespread, as many literary magazines complain that they have far more submitters than subscribers.
This made me reflect a little. Every so often I get in an online discussion about how important it is for aspiring writers to not just read, but read widely, deeply, obsessively. This tends to turn into an increasingly heated debate with someone(s) who might want to be a writer but doesn’t read much or at all. One argument they make (in addition to the one Galef mentions above) is that a true artist needs to be out in the world encountering interesting people and having Life Experiences, and they can’t do this if they’re shut up alone in a room with a book.
What frustrates me here is this idea that it’s an either/or proposition. That you’re either reading or you’re living, because the one has nothing to do with the other. This is bullshit.
I’ve been reading obsessively since first grade, when I used my allowance to purchase a book in a bookstore for the very first time (BLUBBER by Judy Blume, for about two bucks, a price which amazes me now). I read because I want to, not because I feel I should (one of the reasons I became a writer might even be to somehow justify or legitimize my constant reading in a society that doesn’t see the practical point of it). That’s hardly stopped me from going into the world or having Life Experiences. If anything, reading put me out there in the world because it gave me a sense of what lay beyond my immediate and very limited environment. It gave me a range of the possible, provided you learn yourself well and acknowledge your limitations and figure out how to play to your strengths. Television can’t do this. TV instills the longing, the fantasy, but doesn’t give you many coping mechanisms or actual insight into the substance behind the images (turns out life in LA is pretty different from those early-’90s episodes of MELROSE PLACE. Who knew? BEVERLY HILLS 90210 didn’t help me much either). Just talk to all those young girls who think they can grow up to be Paris Hilton if they can figure out how to buy that new Coach purse.
Reading does not shut you off from the world, but connects you to it on a profound level; just as you bring what you’ve lived to everything you read, you bring what you’ve read to everything you live. The wisdom those much-vaunted Life Experiences grant you run all the deeper for being compounded by the experiences of others, even if those ‘others’ never existed in the first place. Your perspective magically extends beyond your own, which is what a writer needs.
Reading puts you into deep and everyday contact with some of the most amazing minds you could ever want to encounter. Which is also what a writer needs.
I once read a rather good Star Wars novel by Timothy Zahn. At one point some baddies figures out how to hold Luke captive by stripping him of his ability to connect to the Force. Luke feels so diminished by this, it’s like he’s been struck blind or deaf (of course he’s so kick-ass he manages to escape anyway). That struck me as a good analogy for reading. Literature — and when I say ‘literature’ I mean absolutely all of it, from the art to the trashy guilty pleasures — is my own personal Force, and without it I’d be a much lesser person living a much lesser life.
I will add that Galef doesn’t distinguish between aspiring writers who refuse to read (or don’t refuse so much as justify why they’d rather watch TV), and accomplished writers who might choose not to read fiction during a work-in-progress, because they are worried that the voice of their own novel might become contaminated. Rest assured these writers are reading other things. Many other things.