This weekend, my friends and I were talking about books, particularly about young adult books because most of us read them and because we were discussing what young adult titles might be appropriate and enjoyable for my friends’ precocious 8-year-old daughter.
As we talked, my friend David asked why I read so much young adult fiction. My answer was almost instantaneous, “Because after I spend all day reading about slavery and oppression, I need to read things that are lighter and where good wins.” He just nodded. Sometimes, I read books just to reinforce my hope and deep belief that all really is well, as a person in law enforcement David gets that.
I read for other reasons, too. I read to learn, to understand something. For example, right now I am reading Remembering Slavery, a collection of interviews with people who had been enslaved. I’m reading this book so that I can get first-person perspectives on this horrible practice. I’m also reading it to pick up the language of these people; I want to be able to hear – in my mind – the voices of Primus and Lucy and Jeffrey. Reading the dialect of other people will help me do that.
Sometimes I read to see models of how I want to shape my own work. When I read For the Time Being by Annie Dillard, I suddenly saw how fragmented essays could be the ideal shape for some of the pieces I was trying to write. Then, when I picked up The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks I suddenly understood how to write a book that involved people to whom the writer was not, at first, connected but who came to be an intimate part of her life. Skloot’s book showed me how to structure myself as both part of and separate from the story I was telling.
At times, there is no larger purpose behind what I read. I want to be entertained or I want to forget or I want to remember. I think these are all valid reasons to read, as long as we do read.
There’s nothing worse than a person who considers herself a writer – and I’ve met many – but who doesn’t read. As John Gardner says, “No ignoramus — no writer who has kept himself innocent of education – has ever produced great art.” To be the best of who we are as writer, we have to read what has come before and with us. That’s how we learn.
Why do you read? How does it change your writing?