Books, books, and . . .
Contributor
Written by
Lauren B. Davis
July 2012
Contributor
Written by
Lauren B. Davis
July 2012

I was teaching a writing workshop on Saturday and the subject of reading came up, as it often does.  Students are not surprised when I suggest that, if they really want to be writers, they also have to be readers. What does seem to surprise some of them, though, is how much reading I suggest they do as a minimum requirement for the writers' life:  a book a week for life.

books . . .

"What?  I don't have the time for all that," grumbles a student.

"Turn off the television," I suggest.

"I don't watch television, at least not much."

"Get up earlier, then."

"I already get up at six."

At which point I just shrugged.  Of course we can find excuses why we can't possibly do something, but if it's important to us, we'll make the time. We'll give up something to get something of greater perceived value. If you can't find the time to read, I can't imagine how you'll be a writer.  The two are inextricably connected.

Then, too, comes the question of what to read.  I always ask students to read outside their comfort zone, as well as within it.  Read what you love, certainly, but also read new things, books you might not ordinarily pick up, just to see if a new take on the world might shake up your own.  Such things are good for readers and writers alike.  As writers, we also read to see how other writers manage to craft such fantastic books, as well as determine why a book fails to engage us. Great books make great teachers.

. . . books . . .

A friend mentioned recently that she found a book I had recommended "challenging."  And perhaps it is, for the first person narrative voice is intimate, and the narrator spends a good deal of time pondering events in three different time periods, which is often the way the mind associates critical events.  I admit, you do have to keep your wits about you when reading this wonderful book (The Bishop's Man by Linden McIntyre), but the pay off is well worth it. It's a thought-provoking and deeply compassionate work about a difficult subject (child abuse by Catholic priests), and a beautiful character study that captures perfectly a particular time and place.

This reminded me of a conversation I had not long ago with the fantastic Haitian/Quebec writer, Dany Laferriere.  We were discussing readers' responses to our work, which are sometimes baffling.  Dany said a woman once approached him in something of a tizzy and asked him why his books were so difficult.

"Difficult?" he replied in his wonderful French-accented double bass voice, "Come now, why would you say this to me?  Do I say this to you?  Do I point out a passage in my book and tell you how difficult it was to write?  Do I make notes next to a paragraph:  This paragraph took me four hours to write!  No, of course I don't.  I have done my job, and now, you must do yours."

That cracked me up.

However, I'm not advocating writing difficult works just for the sake of it.  That feels like nothing more than self-indulgence, and a little like the writer doesn't like their readers very much.  If, for example, a writer must explain that the hidden key to a book appears only in an obtuse allusion on page 79 to something which doesn't actually appear in the text , as a very famous writer once said to Oprah, well, then. . . perhaps it's a tad TOO obtuse.  But generally, if we only read fast, easy books which do little to enrich us, do not make us question our assumptions, nor expand our sense of compassion, well, what's the point? Pure entertainment?  Sure, but how about that and a little (or a lot) more?

. . . and more books

Here's a challenge for you -- back to that book a week.  On the www.goodreads.com site -- a fun and useful readers social networking site -- you can keep track of the books you read, what you think of them, share that information with others if you like, and give yourself a reading challenge.  How many books do you commit to reading this year?  Put in that number, and as you enter more books, the site lets you know how you're doing.  I put in 52 books, and as of today, I'm 10 books ahead of schedule.  Feel quite good about that, I do.

Care to join me?  You'll find me on the site -- "Friend" me if you like, and maybe follow my reviews.  It's good crack as the Irish say, and that only means good fun, which you know if you're Irish, or perhaps if you've read, "The Last House in Ulster" by Charles Foran, which I'm reading now.

Let's be friends

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Comments
  • I love to read and read a great deal, but never a whole book in one week even if it's short. Also, I usually read the entire book (front to back), including the copyright page, back page, acknowledgements (although I skim through these), the endorsements page, introduction (nonfiction) or prologue (fiction) and then every word of the book.

    And when I reach a passage that wows me, I'm usually done for the day, because I have to stop reading to let the wow passage soak in. It's time consuming, but I find myself still thinking about certain books: characters, relationships, conflict, scenery, dialog, etc., and what the book’s message is long after reading a book.

  • Lauren B. Davis

    Thanks, Jayne. 

  • Jayne Martin

    Stephen King said exactly the same thing.  To be a good writer you have to read.   Excellent piece.   I'd better get "cracking."  

  • Lauren B. Davis

    Hello M.E. O'Meagher, I wasn't sure if you meant your comment for me -- the author of the blog -- or for Carmen, another member who commented on it.  But, in case it was for me -- You're most welcome.  "Lovely seductions" is a wonderful phrase. 

  • M. E. O\'Meagher

    Hello Carmen, Thank you for sharing your insight and humor. I love books in form as well as function. They are lovely seductions,my splurge and indulgence. A book weekly is fairly easy as I am a fast reader. Breaking away from my old stand-by selections can be challenging but I see the advantage. Thank you again.

  • Lauren B. Davis

    Hi Carmen, I understand your point.  Woody Allen once said, "I took a speed reading course and then read War & Peace.  It was about Russia."  Snort. 

    The average reader, my research tells me, reads about 200-250 wpm with good comprehension.  (http://ezinearticles.com/?What-is-the-Average-Reading-Speed-and-the-Best-Rate-of-Reading?&id=2298503) The average number of words per line in a 6" x 9" trade paperback is approximately 10 and each page has approximately 39 lines = 390 words/page.Which is roughly 2 minutes per page.  So, in an hour, the average person reads say, 30 pages. If the average book is 350 pages long, and if you read only an hour a day, it would take about 12 days to read a book. What I do is,divide the number of pages in a book by 7 and make it a priority to read that many pages a day.  Often, especially if I love the book, I read more than that, and certainly more than an hour a day.  I must say, "A Fine Balance" by Rohinton Mistry -- which I adore -- at 713 pages, flew by since it was so damn good. 

    And I do read carefully, especially since I use much of what I read in my teaching.  Lots of note-taking and underlining. 

    Still, every reader is different, and the important thing, especially for the emerging writer, is to make a committed effort to read for a couple of hours at least every day.  Think of it, if you can, as going to class for a couple of hours a day.  (And sometimes, with the very busy lives we all lead, that means getting up earlier, or going to bed later, or cramming an hour into our lunch hours, and certainly--because it is so important to us--turning off the tv and turning down social engagements.) 

    You might find, with such practice (and it is practice, like piano scales or prayer) that your concentration and comprehension improve.  Good luck, and no matter how many books you read, keep reading, and keep writing. 

  • Carmen Esposito

    I do not argue the need to read but some of us are slower readers.  It takes me longer than a week to finish a book and I wouldn't want to be judged because of it.  If I try to read it faster (as I've done in the past) I miss something and have to go back sometimes a page or three to get back on track.  It either has to do with reading comprehension, maybe I get distracted easily or a combination of both.  The author worked really hard to write the book so I want to give it my full attention despite the noisy people on the bus and the train that are disrupting me.  So for me a book a week would be a tad difficult.  However, your recommendation to read books that are out of our comfort zone is definitely something I might try.  Thanks for the tips.

  • Lauren B. Davis

    What fun, Beth.  I love books on design and have a stack of them.  I find them inspirational, not only for my own home, but for imagining the environments of my characters.  And, since I love to cook, my shelves bulge with cookbooks.  Made lamb chops with a balsamic reduction last night (and ate far more than I should have!)  I'll look up HomeStyle Books. 

  • Beth Goehring

    While flossing! I love it--perfect for mss pages which I could tape to the bathroom mirror. I sell books through the traditional book clubs (Book-of-the-Month Club is the one most people recognize). After years of selling popular fiction through The Literary Guild and Doubleday Book Club, now I sell cookbooks through The Good Cook and interior design and gardening books through HomeStyle Books. It's direct-to-member, almost like having your own bookshop.

  • Lauren B. Davis

    Thanks, Beth.  And you're right about filling in time with books.  I read while flossing and brushing my teeth, which cracks my husband up.  Where do you sell books? 

  • Beth Goehring

    I don't have to find time to read; I need to force myself to put the book down to participate in all the other areas of my life! I find it the most soothing thing in so many situations: waiting for the bus that takes forever to come, filling the time and distracting myself from my grumbling stomach before my husband gets home for dinner, to forget a stupid little argument that only time will resolve.... I sell books for a living, so I do a lot of recommending, but how I love when a friend leads me to something I'd never have found on my own. Andre Dubus III's TOWNIE was way out of my comfort zone, but worth every moment. GoodReads.com is a lot of fun.

  • Lauren B. Davis

    Carol -- it's true, one can suffer from writer's envy, but that's easily turned into inspiration, especially when one realizes that EVERY truthful writer, regardless of success, admits to feeling like a bit of a fraud whose inadequacies will be revealed upon publication of the next book.  Every one of us.  We write in spite of that, because we can't NOT write.  In fact, I tell my students, "If you can NOT write, you should probably do that.  Otherwise, just get on with it, no matter what happens, or what doesn't."  Keep writing. 

  • Carol Hedges

    Thanks Laauren - from the 'new kid' - just joined. Brit writer  ... so feeling my way. I teach English, and I can always tell a 'reader' - their vocabulary and ability to discuss a book stands out. I agree, you cannot be a writer without being a reader - tho' when you read an outstanding book, sometimes you sigh a bit in envy!!!  X carol 

  • I read a lot but I've given myself to not read the entire book -- to read only the opening, to skip pages, to like the dialogue and read only that, to go right to the ending if I must.  I'd also add that if you only read new novels, try a classic.  If you only read fiction, try creative nonfiction. Truly, author of LIE. 

  • Lauren B. Davis

    Your mother-in-law sounds like quite a lady.  She's lucky to have you help her find good books. 

  • Denise Howell

    My mother in law is 86 and she is an avid reader, we scour the countryside for used and discount bookstores so she can afford to feed her habit. She has to keep notebooks with her to make sure she dosen't buy a book she hs already read, and yes, she has a very sharp mind! I agree, read, read, read!

  • Lauren B. Davis

    Excellent SaraBeth!  Keep going.  Share what you're reading -- what worked, what didn't and why . . . such conversations are the stuff of writers!

  • SaraBeth Cullinan

    Wow!  52 books in one year and you're ahead of schedule?  Tres cool!  With the year being half over I signed on for 25 books.  I think I have about that many in my "To Read" pile.

  • Lauren B. Davis

    Kathleen -- yes, by all means break down and get an iPod -- the audio book selection is wonderful.  But, speaking of consolations, NOBODY can keep up with all the new writers, mags and so forth.  Listen to what you love, write what you love.  Life's too short for anything else!

  • Kathleen Kern

    The other consolation is I read thousands of books before I turned forty.

  • Kathleen Kern

    I think it some ways it has been a gift.  I got over the heart break around 2002 after a two year mourning period and several trips to eye specialists.  In fact, because of my work with a human rights organization, I had had to shove fiction to the back burner for a long time, and guess what?  The political stuff I had been reading for my work wasn't on CD and fiction was.  Where I am hampered, writing-wise is that I can't really keep up with new writers, literary magazines, that aren't on audio--even CDs are becoming archaic.  I suppose I'm going to need to break down and get an MP3 one of these days.

  • Lauren B. Davis

    Kathleen -- how heartbreaking for you!  I'm so sorry to hear about your eyes.  Does the larger size print on an e-reader help you?  Probably not, if even blown up to 300% you're in pain. Gosh.  I have friends who listen to books all the time and quite love it.  On the plus side, I think that 'slow' reading is actually quite helpful to a reader.  Francine Prose in her book, "Reading Like a Writer", has quite a lot to say on the benefits of slow reading, rather than the race-to-the-end so many of us do.  Perhaps it is an unexpected gift? 

  • Kathleen Kern

    From 2nd grade on, I probably read between 2-10 books a week until about 2000, when my eyes began to fail.  A surgery I had when I was 6 resulted in scar tissue that makes reading normal size print for longer than 10-20 minutes at a time really painful (I reserve it for Poets and Writers, and a few other crucial publications).  I blow up everything on the computer to 300%, and even so, at the end of the day, I'm in a fair amount of pain. I now listen to books on CD, but it does slow me down--I clocked in at 600 words a minute in my glory days.  On the other hand, listening to books read aloud, particularly ones I read before my eyes went bad made me realize that sometime I used to blip over long paragraphs of description, e.g. in Tolkien.

  • Lauren B. Davis

    Yijide!!  How wonderful to see you here.  Everyone -- READ HER BOOK!!  (And it's inching closer and closer to the top of my TBR pile -- can't wait!) 

  • Yejide Kilanko

    Hi Lauren. Loved reading your post. Great reminder for these super busy times. Not sure I can consistently make one book a week but I'm going to try. All the best :)