The Worst Thing I Ever Heard

The Worst Thing I ever Heard

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.

Not read?

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:

Stephen King Reading










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.

  1. Peter Abrahams, End of Story
  2. Peter Abrahams, The Tutor
  3. Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger
  4. Kate Atkinson, One Good Turn
  5. Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake
  6. Mischa Berlinski, Fieldwork
  7. Benjamin Black [pseudo.], Christine Falls
  8. Peter Blauner, The Last Good Day
  9. Roberto Bolaño, 2666
  10. David Carr, The Night of the Gun
  11. John Casey, Spartina
  12. Michael Chabon, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union
  13. Lee Child, The Jack Reacher novels, starting with Killing Floor
  14. Michael Connelly, The Narrows
  15. Mark Costello, Big If
  16. Michael Cunningham, The Hours
  17. Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves
  18. Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
  19. Richard Dooling, White Man’s Grave
  20. David Downing, Zoo Station
  21. Andre Dubus, The Garden of Last Days
  22. Leif Enger, Peace Like a River
  23. Frederick Exley, A Fan’s Notes
  24. Joshua Ferris, Then We Came to the End
  25. Jonathan Franzen, Strong Motion
  26. Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections
  27. Neil Gaiman, American Gods
  28. Meg Gardiner, Crosscut
  29. Meg Gardiner, The Dirty Secrets Club
  30. William Gay, The Long Home
  31. Robert Goddard, Painting the Darkness
  32. Sara Gruen, Water for Elephants
  33. Steven Hall, The Raw Shark Texts
  34. Mark Helprin, A Soldier of the Great War
  35. Charlie Huston, The Hank Thompson Trilogy
  36. Denis Johnson, Tree of Smoke
  37. Garrison Keillor (ed), Good Poems
  38. Sue Monk Kid, The Secret Life of Bees
  39. Chuck Klosterman, Fargo Rock City
  40. Stieg Larsson, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
  41. John le Carré, Absolute Friends
  42. Dennis Lehane, The Given Day
  43. Elmore Leonard, Up in Honey’s Room
  44. Jonathan Letham, The Fortress of Solitude
  45. Laura Lippman, What the Dead Know
  46. Bentley Little, Dispatch
  47. Bernard Malamud, The Fixer
  48. Yann Martel, Life of Pi
  49. Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men
  50. Ian McEwan, Atonement
  51. James Meek, The People’s Act of Love
  52. Audrey Niffenegger, Her Fearful Symmetry
  53. Patrick O’Brian, The Aubrey/Maturin Novels
  54. Stewart O’Nan, The Good Wife
  55. Joyce Carol Oates, We Were the Mulvaneys
  56. George Pelecanos, Hard Revolution
  57. George Pelecanos, The Turnaround
  58. Tom Perrotta, The Abstinence Teacher
  59. Jodi Picoult, Nineteen Minutes
  60. DBC Pierre, Vernon Little God
  61. Annie Proulx, Fine Just the Way It Is
  62. Michael Robotham, Shatter
  63. Philip Roth, American Pastoral
  64. Philip Roth, The Plot Against America
  65. Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children
  66. Richard Russo, Bridge of Sighs
  67. Richard Russo, Empire Falls
  68. Dan Simmons, Drood
  69. Dan Simmons, The Terror
  70. Curtis Sittenfeld, American Wife
  71. Tom Rob Smith, Child 44
  72. Scott Snyder, Voodoo Heart
  73. Neil Stephenson, Quicksilver
  74. Donna Tartt, The Little Friend
  75. Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace 
  76. Joseph Wambaugh, Hollywood Station
  77. Robert Warren Penn, All the King’s Men
  78. Sarah Waters, The Little Stranger
  79. Mark Winegardner, Crooked River Burning
  80. Mark Winegardner, The Godfather Review
  81. David Wroblewski, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle
  82. 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.




About Geri Schear

Geri Schear is an award-winning novelist, author of three Sherlock Holmes and Lady Beatrice books published by MX Publishing. Her short stories have appeared in a number of journals. For further information, see her page at Amazon:
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