Monday, November 04, 2013

READING FOR SUCCESS: You Call That a Collar

(NOTE: Why do they have the gold/Why do they have the power/Why why why/Do they have the friends at the top?/Why do they have the jobs at the top?/We’ve got nothing/Always had nothing/Nothing but holes and millions of them/Living in holes, dying in holes/Holes in our bellies and holes in our clothes/Marat we’re poor/And the poor stay poor/Marat don’t make us wait anymore)

The middle of autumn has a snotty attitude and nasty weather, so any young writer thinks about reading since wind surfing is really out of the question. New books crowd store windows, along with reading lights, Joyce Carol Oates coffee mugs, more Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings boxed sets, e-readers, refrigerator magnets of classic Penguin covers, pens, pencils, and Dante toddler hoodies. With so many choices ready for the frenzy known as the holiday season, the young writer stumbles in finding the right ones for their work.
The novels you read when younger have changed on account of you have changed, read more, traveled more, written more, and these activities add to what you can get out of a book. Alexandre Dumas’ tales of hashish in The Count of Monte Cristo were missed when you read them at age twelve, but now you know what he was going on about from readings in French literature on Théophile Gautier, Charles Baudelaire, and the Club des Hachichins. Education should always be fun. Along with this revelation, the young writer can also look at Dumas’ use of direct address and other flourishes that make the story a great read.
Start with Anne Fadiman’s Rereadings: Seventeen writers revisit books they love (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), especially the essay by Luc Sante on Arthur Rimbaud.
Writers read in their own areas of expertise: novels for novelists, and nonfiction for nonfiction writers. The crossovers occur when novelists need fact for their fiction, and nonfiction writers need emotional depth in making an event come alive for the reader. Philip Roth said in a 2011 Financial Times interview: “I’ve stopped reading fiction. I don’t read it at all. I read other things: history, biography. I don’t have the same interest in fiction that I once did.” This was a sign not to read his. Dedication to the craft means always reading in your field. No one has read everything, except for Harold Bloom.
What about quality? Reading badly written or admittedly cheap trash books is used as a tonic for many writers. Characters, settings, and themes are the last considerations when flipping through the pages. Bad books are the literary equivalent of reality television shows, and rarely worth the effort except to shut down the brain for a needed jolt of the blank space. An overwhelmed writer is better with a bad book where thinking is discouraged than with Virginia Woolf. Save To the Lighthouse until the energy returns and you can roll into the non-linear plot of big thoughts.

The line outside your local independent bookstore is for The Dog Walked Down the Street: An Outspoken Guide for Writers Who Want to Publish (Cypress House, $13.95). Jump right in and stake your place, meet interesting people who want to know as much about publishing and writing and editing as you do, and warm up with hot coffee at the nearest café afterward. Live and love longer with The Dog on your night table. Log on to for directions to the store nearest you. Dress appropriately.

NEXT: Water Bugs in the Water Dish

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