Friday, June 17, 2011

What Should A Writer Read?

Frankie here. Has anyone ever browsed those reading lists of books that every "well-educated" or "cultured" person should have read? I've been thinking about what writers should read. I know the answer usually given is that a would-be writer should read widely, making sure to read deeply in the genre in which he or she wants to write. I've been thinking about this because I'm scheduled to teach my first creative writing class, one night a week in August, with group of uniquely non-traditional students who will have various levels of exposure to reading and writing.

I thought about the advice above, and it seems sound. But then I thought about my own reading experiences before and after becoming a writer, and it's good advice that I haven't always followed. My reading has been unbalanced and sporadic and led by whimsy. As soon as I had my own library card, I began wandering through the stacks picking up anything that had an interesting title or cover illustration. I checked out and read Proust . . .but passed on War and Peace. I read F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway because I was fascinated by that era. I managed to buy a copy of Cleland's Fanny Hill in a bookstore with no one objecting. But I never got beyond the wonderful opening lines of Moby Dick, although I certainly read Dracula and Austen. I read Jack London and Mark Twain and -- being a Southerner -- Faulkner. In school, famous speeches and Shakespeare. But there are all those other books on the reading lists -- Camus, for example -- that I still haven't read.

I have read haphazardly. I have fallen in love with books and fixated on them. For example, The Day Must Dawn by an author named Agnes Sligh Turnbull. I read it in high school, checked it out from the library at least half a dozen times. A big thick novel, set on the western frontier during the Revolutionary War era, a book with a marvelous sense of place. I can still remember curling up with that book and starlight mints on a Saturday evening. That was my favorite way to read books. I zipped through Gone With the Wind in a weekend -- completely oblivious to the social issues that I should have been concerned about. I read it as historical romance. Now, I suspect I wouldn't be able to get past that slavery thing.

Which brings me to my meandering point or my question about what to say about reading to my class of non-traditional writers in the making. As I have admitted, there are many books that I "should" have read when I was younger, and still haven't. I have more time for reading in summer. But my problem -- and this will make me feel like a hypocrite when I stand before my writing class -- is that right now I'm suffering from nostalgia. I have a pile of new books that I had intended to read this summer. But they aren't what I want to read. I've been reading for research (academic and mystery), and when I settle down with my starlight mints what I want to do is revisit my past. I want to find those books that I loved as a teenager and read them again. This may mean that I'm seeking comfort during a period when the world is too much with me. Or it could mean that I'm seeking clues about what I would really love to write. Or it may mean I don't want to be influenced by other modern writers while writing. Or maybe I'm experiencing aging baby-boomer syndrome. Whatever it means, the pull of nostalgia is deeper than my commitment to read widely and with curiosity.

What I would like to say to my students is that when it comes to reading a writer should follow his or her instincts. But I am not sure this is the best advice to give would-be writers who may not have been exposed to those reading lists and who have never experienced wandering through the stacks. What if they are only reading poorly written books and trying to "write like that"? I'm torn, and your thoughts and advice would be appreciated.

Meanwhile I'm going to track down some of those books from my past. Maybe I'll fall in love again . . .or maybe I won't. Maybe I've outgrown those books. But I'm going to see what happens. I have the winter to catch up on the New York Times bestsellers and give Moby Dick one more try.


Irene Bennett Brown said...

I loved Agnes Sligh Turnbull's novels, particularly, The Nightingale. It was great to see her mentioned here. I'll leave it to others to give advice, though. Good luck with your class.

Frankie Y. Bailey said...

Another Turnbull fan! Thanks for mentioning The Nightingale. I'll look for it.

Donis Casey said...

I have exactly your same problem. And interestingly, I've been thinking along the same lines, lately. Since I've been published, I find myself reading things I think I ought to read instead of what I'd really like to read. In my life I've made more joyous discoveries by browsing library shelves than practically any other way, and I haven't done that in a long time. Nothing beats serendipity, especially if you choose to believe that things come into your life for a reason.

Frankie Y. Bailey said...

I'm so glad to hear you say that, Donis. I confess as much as I love mysteries, there are times when I would rather just read for the joy of reading -- and that happens when a book just says "pick me up."
And I agree with you completely about serendipity. When I'm thinking I should do something, it usually leads some place interesting.