The Tremendous Importance of Reading for Writers, What Leo's Reading, and an Ask the Readers

    Photo courtesy of shaycam.

    If I am asked for my best advice for newer writers, I always respond with two things they absolutely must do:

    1. Write a lot.
    2. Read a lot.

    If you do those two things, you won’t be able to help getting better. Of course, there’s more to writing than that, but if you’re looking for a simple writing-improvement program, that’s it.

    I’d like to talk about the second point today — reading a lot. Why does it matter? Because by reading other writers, you start to gain a greater command of the language, of vocabulary, of the limits of writing and art, of techniques and craft, of poetry and imagination. Read for content, read for themes, and read for techniques.

    But what should you read? That can be debated endlessly (and has been), but my philosophy is just to read a great variety of stuff, of all genres, from different cultures, high-brow and low-brow alike. Be indiscriminate.

    That said, here are some notes on what I’m reading and some books I’ve enjoyed recently:

    Kafka on the Shoreby Haruki Marukami: This is what I’m reading now, and I can barely put it down. It’s a book I’ve long been wanting to read, and when I saw it on my mom’s bookshelf, I eagerly grabbed it. It’s so imaginative, and it’s a wonderful book for writers because it’s a fictional story that talks about fiction, and art, and literature, in such interesting ways. From Kafka to Japanese writers to Tolsoy to the Greek classics, this story spans the ages. The characters are fascinating as well. I won’t spoil the story — just read it.

    Anna Karenina (Signet Classics), by Leo Tolstoy: One of the greatest classics ever, of course, but I hadn’t read it until this past month. I’m glad I spent the time to read the 800+ pages, because it’s such a beautiful story, just as relevant today as it was 120 years ago. For writers, it’s an amazing book — one that contemporary Dostoyevsky called “flawless” as a work of art — for its realism, for the depth of its characters, for the intricate weaving of complex stories, and for the masterful use of an omniscient narrator that set the standard for generations of writers to come.

    When We Were Orphans: A Novelby Kazuo Ishiguro: I’ve only recently fallen in love with Ishiguro’s writing (Never Let Me Go, below, and An Artist of the Floating World are two others I love). This is an intriguing story that’s ostensibly about a famous London detective trying to solve the case of his parent’s abduction decades earlier … but it’s so much more than that. Ishiguro is so interesting as a writer, in good part because he really challenges the reader’s notion of the reliability of the narrator, and of subjectivity in storytelling.

    Water for Elephants: A Novelby Sara Gruen: I didn’t think I would enjoy a book about circuses and elephants, so I entered into this book with a little skepticism. You might too, but if you give it a chance this book will captivate you. It’s such a lovely story, and the impeccably researched details really take you back to a time and place you will only reluctantly leave.

    Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia by Elizabeth Gilbert: The only non-fiction book on this list, this is a memoir that is a great read for bloggers, because the distinctive voice she uses really instructs us, as bloggers, about the possibilities of the blogger’s voice. Gilbert is a writer going through a tough time in life, with a divorce and another failed romance and angst … and decides to take a year off, traveling. She takes us through four months in Rome, where she experiences pleasure … four months in an ashram in India where she focuses on devotion … and another four months in Bali where she explores love. Really, a fascinating read.
    Motherless Brooklyn,  by Jonathen Lethem: One of my favorite current authors, Lethem takes the detective novel to new levels with a brilliant main character. I truly love this book.

    Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro: Another by this Japanese author raised in England … this is a bewildering story that slowly unfolds. I liked this book, as a writer, because it shows that you don’t need to use conventional plot devices to move the reader along … Ishiguro uses curiosity more than anything else to compel us to read each chapter, and I think it works.

    Run: A Novel (P.S.), by Ann Patchett: Another of my favorite current authors. If you haven’t read Patchett’s Bel Canto, definitely read it! I recommend all her others as well: Magician’s Assistant, Taft, The Patron Saint of Liars, Truth & Beauty. Run is an amazing little story of two families that collide … and there are two characters that are filled with such beauty that it’s heart-rendering. Patchett is a wonderful storyteller.

    Ask the Readers

    So now that you’ve seen what I’ve been reading, I’d like to ask you, the readers:

    What are you reading? And what kind of reading do you recommend for writers?

    About the author

      Mary Jaksch

      Mary Jaksch is best known for her exceptional training for writers at WritetoDone.com. Grab a copy of her free report, How to Create an Irresistible Lead Magnet in Less Than 5 Hours. In her “spare” time, Mary’s also the brains behind AlistBlogging.net. and GoodlifeZEN.com, a Zen Master, a mother, and a 5th Degree Black Belt.

    • Pork says:

      Ummmmm,

      Pork

    • shamrosdi says:

      i have read chinese cindarella….it was amazingly awesome.

    • Eli says:

      Have you seen Elizabeth Gilbert’s Nurturing Genius on ted.com? It is one of the better talks.

      http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/elizabeth_gilbert_on_genius.html

    • Currently I am reading a book called A Married Woman by an Indian author Manju Kapoor. I am planning to write a review also of that book for my article writing contest at ezinearticles.

    • Keith D says:

      I am not a hardcore writer, but over the years have had to write quite a bit for business. Clients have told me that even in e-mails, they appreciate the clarity of my writing. Two attributions for the talent. Late-high school/early-college English classes and reading. I have had a library card since first grade. 30-60 books a year estimated for 48 years. There was a period when business kept me too busy and tired to physically sit down to read, so I listened to lots of BOT. Reading helps you develop vocabulary, style, voice, clarity and interests. Read Conrad then Hemingway to see two radically different styles that are both equally effective.
      re: Amazon Anonymous – 98% of the books I read are from the library. In keeping with Zen Habits frugality, it has been a long time since buying more than a business related book. in the 80’s I spent lots of time and money trolling used book stores. Money and marriage made that stop.

    • I’m just starting The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. He’s the author of Shadow of the Wind–amazing! It’s set in post-civil war Barcelona. This author has a real talent for pulling readers into the feel and mind set of a place and time.

    • vicky says:

      Hi, I thought the article was very interesting. I really enjoyed `Remains of the day` by Ishiguro..I also really like the movie, despite the fact that it can be a little depressing 🙂 ..I´m currently reading a play, Miss Julie and I´ve just finished Hedda Gabler, another play which is also excellent in my opinion

    • I like to use Good Reads to keep track of everything I have read and get new recommendations for books. It’s nifty! I have so many more post-apocalyptic sci-fi novels on my reading list now 😀

    • I enjoy reading the translations of novels written in various Indian languages. I enjoyed reading Those Days and First Light by Sunil Gangopadhyay–he describes the impact of British rule on the people of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, from the 1830s to the early 1900s. Other authors whose work I enjoy include Qurratulain Hyder (she wrote Fireflies in the Mist, about Bangladesh and River of Fire, about Uttar Pradesh–both in Urdu and translated into English) and Ismat Chughtai (who wrote several short stories on the lives of women). I’ve also read Lian Hearn’s Tales of the Otori.

    • Metroknow says:

      This post was perfect timing for me, as I’ve realized over the past few days that I’m not reading as much as I should. My reading these days tends to be more research-based, which although I find interesting, is hardly creatively stimulating for the most part.

      For me, my most important read in the last couple of years was A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. One of the most well-written books I have read in many years.

    • Linnea says:

      I’m reading Werewolves in Their Youth by Michael Chabon, rereading The Well-Fed Writer by Peter Bowerman, and I just finished some grocery store fare: Beyond the Veil. I take that no-discrimination idea seriously. I would recommend Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose and On Writing by Stephen King.

      -Linnea

    • I loved Water for Elephants, but didn’t love the style of When We Were Orphans.

      Right now, I’m doing Lord of the Rings. One of my favorite reads as a writer is Possession by A.S. Byatt. Seeing the amount of work put into that story, and the different voices that were created, was amazing.

    • Robyn says:

      I’m reading Thomas Disch’s The M.D., which is a neat departure for me, as I’ve read almost no horror. So yeah, I agree with you, Leo, it’s important to stretch my horizons. It’s really easy to just stay in my comfort zone and read the same type of books over and over.

    • I was so excited to read this post. I’m a fan of Zen Habits but this was the first time I’ve explored Write to Done. Thank you Leo for this.

      Like Eugene, I get caught up in non-fiction a lot (I think I’m reading 5 non-fiction books right now.) This was a good reminder to keep the fiction alive in my reading. I just finished The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho and My Life in France by Julia Child and Alex Prud’homme. Both were excellent and added such energy to my life.

    • As I’m typing, I look to the bookshelf and see all the books I’ve been buying and not having time enough to read…nowadays I’m getting used to reading slower and taking notes, specially with authors that are more dense and descriptive. Right now, I’m reading (and trying to finish!) Nadine Gordimer’s “The Conservationist, just love the way she can make something so trivial as a shower into visual poetry.

    • Tibi Puiu says:

      Great write up, Leo. I’ve been doing a lot of marketing reading lately, with special notes to one of the smartest people on the internet, Seth Godin. His Purple Cow and All Marketers Are Liarscompletely change my perspective over what I thought was marketing and customer psychology.

      I’ve enjoyed some great books, that I’ve been willing to read for a very long time now, but only now had the time to pick them up. The first 3 Dune by Frank Herbert and Ubik by Philip K. Dick were fantastic.

    • I love reading, but I struggle to get enough time to read books lately. Between family, copy writing, blogging and blog reading I seem to use up most of my hours in the week. I probably see more film these days and I study story structure in film, very much the way I do when I read, so I think that can be helpful with creative writing.

      I loved EAT PRAY LOVE. Elizabeth Gilbert is a wonderful writer and it’s an inspiring story. I can completely relate to her journey and think this is a book for any woman who has ever felt like her life doesn’t fit. As for Anna Karenina, I’ve never read it, but everyone tells me I have to. Maybe when my son goes to school in 2010. I might have more time then.

      Right now I am very very slowly working my way through all Kathy Reich’s books. I’m a big fan of a well written thriller and she is really evocative with her prose, while still being a ripping story teller.

    • Reading an advanced copy of Michael Kimmel’s Guyland It’s about, well, you know, “dudes.” 😉

    • Darla says:

      I just finished Eat, Pray, Love for the 2nd time. Her voice is both humorous and inspirational. Good recommendations!

    • Forgot to mention one of the books that I refer to most often in the course of my week: Stein On Writing: A Master Editor of Some of the Most Successful Writers of Our Century Shares His Craft Techniques and Strategies by Sol Stein. It’s the book that’s shaped me most as a writer.

    • Cheryl says:

      What writers should read? What you like. It’s interesting how what you like expands the more you read.

      I just finished The Shack – a quick read that addresses the problem of evil in the world and the age-old question as to why God allows it. You won’t get lost in rhetoric in this short novel.

      I’ve picked up Walden by Thoreau to re-read. My son just read it for the first time and couldn’t stop talking about it! Remember those days?

      That’s it for now.

    • An extraordinarily well-written and poignant book of fiction about several families and couples in a small town, following them through the arc of their lives: Olive Kitteridge.

      got a rave review in NYT

    • maurice says:

      Well,

      of course I do have some favorite books and author I would recommend. Michel Birbaek for example. But I do not want to post a list of books here, now.
      For me reading is a lot of an emotional thing. Mostly I buy 4-5 books at one time. The book I read next is choosen by feeling. If I feel sad I read book x if I feel lucky, book y.
      There are some must-reads, I think, but I think it is important you read books which touch your feelings in whatever way.

    • I don’t know so much about what to inspire writers, but I’m currently digging into My Life in Art by Constantin Stanislavski.

    • I enjoyed Never Let Me Go – you’re right there is nothing more than intrigue to move the reader through the book.

      I recently finished Skylight Confessions by Alice Hoffman – that was a work of lyrical art – a beautiful story that was beautifully written. I have reviewed both of them on my website over at Blue Archipelago if you are interested in finding out more.

      Oh and I’m currently listening to Uncle Tom’s Cabin – that’s a very powerful book – and I like the way it’s written too.

    • Mary says:

      I just finished reading The Flanders Panel by Arturo Perez-Reverte, and been trying to make reading a priority.
      Thank you for your recommendations!
      Ishiguro and Patchett are going straight to my “to-read” list 🙂
      (p.s. please excuse my poor English, it is not my native language and I probably don’t use it’s grammar properly)

    • Leo says:

      Man, I’m loving these book recommendations! It’s so wonderful to hear from other readers like myself.

      Thanks for the excellent comments, guys!

    • I’ve been trying to make the shift from non-fiction to fiction and so far it’s been great. In February, I started making my way through The Guardian’s list of the 100 greatest books of all time. My goal is to read them over the next 100 months.

      I spend about an hour an a half of reading every night before bed and have managed to make it through 23 books so far! My favorite authors right now are Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov (for the way they manage to capture emotions so well); Orwell and Huxley (for their astute views on the direction of society); and Dickens and Twain (for that cheeky sense of humor). Anna Karenina is a must!

    • I’m currently reading… http://goodlifezen.com/2008/07/28/synchronicity-how-to-decode-lifes-secret-messages/

      Also just finished E-Myth, Permission Marketing and Green Marketing Manifesto.

    • Hi everyone! It’s great reading about all the wonderful books. Makes me want to buy some more immediately. Sometimes I think I should start “Amazon Anonymous” 🙂

      I also enjoy reading good articles. Maybe we could collect ones that have caught our eye.

      For example, I just saw saw this beauty: Liberate Your Life: Put Yourself on Auto-Response

      Check it out!

    • Patricia says:

      I just said to my niece who is studying to be a lawyer, that one can not be a good lawyer until they are a good reader. It is because writers create so many characters, actions, and outcomes in their imaginations that we are able to grasp a bigger picture of human nature than we are prosecuting or defending. One can not possibly know enough people on a personal level to achieve what 20 authors can give us in 20 books. I love reading as much as I love writing. My current reading recommendations are just now posted on my web site. I love Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones.
      Today I am working on these four books as I have just finished 4 novels,
      Thinking Points and Whose Freedom? by George Lakoff
      The Heart of Christianity by Marcus Borg
      Balkan Ghosts by Robert Kaplan
      I also finished The Power of Now by Tolle on my daughter’s new Kindle reader and found that a very useful tool – I read the book in just two days and with no eye problems – you can choose font size.
      I enjoy this site so much and thank you for sharing such fine thoughts.
      Patricia

    • Jolene says:

      P.S. my favorite writer on writing is Natalie Goldberg

    • Jolene says:

      Yeah! I love to read (especially memoirs) and hear what others are reading. Thanks for posting this discussion. I’m in awe of great writers/storytellers, and hope all the reading I do helps my writing.

      Recently I signed up for GoodReads.com. You can invite your friends to join, (like Facebook) but its all about books and what everyone is reading.

      Here’s some of my favorites:
      1. The Glass Castle: A Memoir– Jeannette Walls
      2. The Kite Runner– Khaled Hosseini
      3. The Tender Bar– J.R. Moehringer
      4. Jane Eyre– Charlotte Bronte
      5. The Game– Neil Strauss
      6. Middlesex– Jeffrey Eugenides
      7. The Namesake– Jhumpa Lahiri
      8. Drinking: A Love Story– Caroline Knapp
      9. Seabiscuit– Laura Hillenbrand
      10. The Shadow of the Wind– Ruiz Zafon Carlos
      11. To Kill a Mockingbird– Harper Lee
      12.The Stone Diaries – Carol Shields

    • I couldn’t agree more with both points. Especially #2!

      I try and keep things fresh between spirituality (Richard Rohr, Eckhard Tolle,, Thich Nhat Hanh)), theoloy (N. T. Wright, Richard P. Hayes), personal interest (Malcolm Gladwell, Rob Bell), memoir (David Sedaris, Jeannette Wallis), and fiction (Rob Stennet, Orson Scott Card, Wendel Berry), and more.

      But one for sure read for every writer/artist is Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. Check it out!

    • I’m entering NaNoMoWri this year and to prepare myself I’m doing a 50 Novels in One Year reading challenge (I’m blogging my challenge so please feel free to click to my site for the reading list etc.). I have almost entirely neglected novels during my lifetime, spending all of my reading time ‘non-fictionally’ so this challenge is as much to do with learning the craft of novel writing as much as the reading experience.

      So far it’s been a blast – I’ve fallen in love with Steinbeck Tortilla Flat, been left speechless by Hamsun Hunger and am in awe of Solzhenitsyn One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. I’ve read Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and completely concur with your ‘curiosity’ comment (and said similar in my after-thoughts). Water for Elephants is already on my list and although Murakami’s Kafka On The Shore is not one my list yet (I’m preferring to read Wind-Up Bird Chronicle), I own it and may add it after reading Wind-Up.

      What I will say is that any inspiring writer who hasn’t read Steinbeck should do so IMMEDIATELY. His character construction is unbelievably awe-inspiring. The guy is a GENIUS!!!!!

    • runbei says:

      Yes, lovely that we can improve our writing by reading groovy books. My favorites are by authors who are masters of their craft: Robert B. Parker, Michael Connelly, H.L. Mencken. I’m not a fan of P. G. Wodehouse – I just don’t get his humor – but Lordy Bess, what a craftsman!

      Mencken is wonderful but only in small doses – too much of a sourpuss for the duration.

    • Great to see your list, Leo!
      I’ve now ordered Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go

      I’m reading The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell. It’s a fascinating view of how ideas and trends behave like epidemics. Makes you see the power of social media in a new light!

      A book that’s changed the way I think about work is ‘The 4-Hour Workweek‘ by Tim Ferriss.

    • To be honest, I haven’t been reading and books on writing, although reading in general (as you say) has improved my writing a lot:

      Ask and it’s given
      A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose – Eckhart Tolle
      Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking – Malcolm Gladwell

    • I’ve always been a firm believer that you can learn something from everything. I agree full-hearted that being an indiscriminate reader makes better writers.

      Practically, it means that I almost never put down a book, even if I hate it, because in the end, I can always think of something that I’ve learned, even if it’s only techniques to avoid when writing, etc…

      There is only one book that I regret ever reading: Don Miguel Ruiz’s The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom.

      And there’s only one book that I’ve ever actually stopped because I couldn’t take it: Samuel R. Delany’s “Dhalgren”.

      But more than reading, a writer should simply “consume more stories.” Books are ideal, seeing as the usual output for writing is book form, but by consuming a wide variety of mediums, you have more to reference and more ideas to work with, when you turn from consumer to creator. An artist is more than the sum total of their influences, but the more influences the merrier.

      BTW, everyone should read Lady Murasaki’s The Tale of Genji .

    • writer dad says:

      Sorry, I forgot.

      Right now, I’m reading Michael Chabon’s Summerland. I’ve actually been thinking about writing a review of it because the language is so fetching, but I haven’t written a “book report” since I was in school and I don’t want my post to feel like homework. Anyway, the story is totally random, but delightful nonetheless. What really hits it home is the language. Chabon’s use of words is really rather remarkable. It’s really inspiring to hear things put together in a way that you’ve never heard before,even after millions of pages.

    • writer dad says:

      I’ve read at least book a week since my eyes could string the syllables together. It’s in my blood. I never thought I could be a writer, though. Not until recently. Now I know that if you read enough, you can write. It’s easy, at first, to get hung up on the mechanics and question everything you’re doing. But if you just keep at it, all that stuff falls into place. I’ve written every day for a year now, and I can not only see the difference in my maturity when I look back at my notebooks from a year ago, I can feel it inside as well.

      Thanks for bringing Write to Done back, Leo.

    • Thanks for that list and the notes about each!

      “And what kind of reading do you recommend for writers?”
      For writers, a must is Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within” by Natalie Goldberg


    • >