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

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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?


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