Last month Terry Pratchett died.
I mentioned it to a group of fellow writers. All but one of them said, “Who?”
Reading, it transpires, is something most of them don’t do.
To quote The Princess Bride that’s just inconceivable! (Yes, that word does mean what I think it means.)
How anyone can go through life without reading baffles me. That would-be authors don’t read is in all ways, yes, inconceivable.
During one great period of my life, I used to read three or four books a day, every day. I got through collections of short stories, Dickens, the Russians, Agatha Christie, CS Lewis, the French, Steinbeck, and more poetry than you can shake a meter at.
I’ve slowed down in recent years. Now, I’m more about the quality. I savour favourite passages and favourite authors the way Greg Wallace and John Torode savour a perfectly seasoned Thai curry.
Oftentimes, I don’t need a four-course meal of books, I am content to nibble on my favourite excerpts. A chapter here and there will suffice. Elizabeth Bennett is surprised by the sudden appearance of Mr Darcy at Pemberley in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The Box Hill picnic in the same author’s Emma. Sidney Carlton’s recognition of his own worthlessness in Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. The ghost of Catherine Earnshaw visits Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. The eponymous heroine tells us, “Reader, I married him,” in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. These sustain me in ways a packet of crisps never will. Some of these scenes are so beloved and so frequently revisited, I can recite whole pages to myself like poetry. And yes, I re-read my favourite poems over and over, too. These are less like nibbles and more like exquisite canapes.
I write two pages. And then I read and read and read. — Jose Saramago
I cannot understand why anyone would deprive themselves of such perfect pleasure. Bad enough for any human being to miss so essential a part of the human experience, but how much worse for a fledgling writer?
How can a writer dismiss the experts in their craft? How can they learn if they have no connection with what went before?
Is this rejection of their own art history specific to writers? You don’t see composers saying they can’t be bothered listening to music, do you? You don’t see artists who can’t tell a Van Gogh from a Rembrandt.
Stephen King put it succinctly:
Why should writers read? I can’t believe anyone would ask that as a legitimate question, but I’ll answer it anyway:
1. Because whatever difficulties you’re facing in your writing, some master of the craft has faced them too and has resolved them magnificently. Want to create believable characters? Read James Joyce, John Steinbeck and Charles Dickens. Trying to master plotting? Look no further than Agatha Christie, Patricia Highsmith and Dorothy L Sayers. You want to capture humour or the surreal? Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman are your men. Whetever you want to write, someone can show you how.
2. Because there’s an ideal writer for everyone. How do you know who yours is if you haven’t read widely? You love mysteries but hate science fiction? How do you know if you haven’t read Asimov or Clarke? No, a movie isn’t the same. Would you listen to yourself! Read the great and the good, the profane and the sacred. Even read the bad because you can learn a lot from that too.
3. Because every writer needs an imagination and nothing stirs the imagination better than a book.
4. Because just as you can tell a person’s health from their diet, so you can determine their skill as a writer by the things they read. Good writing seeps into your creative pores and enters your bloodstream. It forces you to elevate your standards and to keep working on your process until excellence is your norm.
5. Because reading expands your vocabulary. It opens the mind. It broadens the reader’s horizon.
6. Because your refusal to read other writers tells me a lot about how great a writer you aren’t. You think you’re God’s gift to literature and you can’t even spell literature? Seriously.
Back to the King:
When a tenth anniversary edition of On Writing was published in 2010, Stephen King included a new reading list. It was published in the afterword with the following introductory note:
At the end of the original edition of On Writing, I listed about a hundred books which entertained and taught me. The publisher’s suggested I update the list for this new edition, so here are eight-plus more – the best things I’ve read between 2001 and 2009. As I said in the 2000 edition of the book… you could do worse.
- Peter Abrahams, End of Story
- Peter Abrahams, The Tutor
- Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger
- Kate Atkinson, One Good Turn
- Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake
- Mischa Berlinski, Fieldwork
- Benjamin Black [pseudo.], Christine Falls
- Peter Blauner, The Last Good Day
- Roberto Bolaño, 2666
- David Carr, The Night of the Gun
- John Casey, Spartina
- Michael Chabon, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union
- Lee Child, The Jack Reacher novels, starting with Killing Floor
- Michael Connelly, The Narrows
- Mark Costello, Big If
- Michael Cunningham, The Hours
- Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves
- Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
- Richard Dooling, White Man’s Grave
- David Downing, Zoo Station
- Andre Dubus, The Garden of Last Days
- Leif Enger, Peace Like a River
- Frederick Exley, A Fan’s Notes
- Joshua Ferris, Then We Came to the End
- Jonathan Franzen, Strong Motion
- Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections
- Neil Gaiman, American Gods
- Meg Gardiner, Crosscut
- Meg Gardiner, The Dirty Secrets Club
- William Gay, The Long Home
- Robert Goddard, Painting the Darkness
- Sara Gruen, Water for Elephants
- Steven Hall, The Raw Shark Texts
- Mark Helprin, A Soldier of the Great War
- Charlie Huston, The Hank Thompson Trilogy
- Denis Johnson, Tree of Smoke
- Garrison Keillor (ed), Good Poems
- Sue Monk Kid, The Secret Life of Bees
- Chuck Klosterman, Fargo Rock City
- Stieg Larsson, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
- John le Carré, Absolute Friends
- Dennis Lehane, The Given Day
- Elmore Leonard, Up in Honey’s Room
- Jonathan Letham, The Fortress of Solitude
- Laura Lippman, What the Dead Know
- Bentley Little, Dispatch
- Bernard Malamud, The Fixer
- Yann Martel, Life of Pi
- Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men
- Ian McEwan, Atonement
- James Meek, The People’s Act of Love
- Audrey Niffenegger, Her Fearful Symmetry
- Patrick O’Brian, The Aubrey/Maturin Novels
- Stewart O’Nan, The Good Wife
- Joyce Carol Oates, We Were the Mulvaneys
- George Pelecanos, Hard Revolution
- George Pelecanos, The Turnaround
- Tom Perrotta, The Abstinence Teacher
- Jodi Picoult, Nineteen Minutes
- DBC Pierre, Vernon Little God
- Annie Proulx, Fine Just the Way It Is
- Michael Robotham, Shatter
- Philip Roth, American Pastoral
- Philip Roth, The Plot Against America
- Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children
- Richard Russo, Bridge of Sighs
- Richard Russo, Empire Falls
- Dan Simmons, Drood
- Dan Simmons, The Terror
- Curtis Sittenfeld, American Wife
- Tom Rob Smith, Child 44
- Scott Snyder, Voodoo Heart
- Neil Stephenson, Quicksilver
- Donna Tartt, The Little Friend
- Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace
- Joseph Wambaugh, Hollywood Station
- Robert Warren Penn, All the King’s Men
- Sarah Waters, The Little Stranger
- Mark Winegardner, Crooked River Burning
- Mark Winegardner, The Godfather Review
- David Wroblewski, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle
- Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road
It doesn’t matter whether you like the books on King’s list or not. Make your own list.
What are you waiting for? Go read something.