“Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life.” –Stephen King
“Knowing you have something good to read before bed is among the most pleasurable of sensations.”
“Read, read, read. Read everything—trash, classics, good and bad.” –William Faulkner
“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.” –Eudora Welty.
I think I came to reading a little later than some of the other people in my family. The love affair didn’t start until I was eleven or twelve. My parents and my sister were always voracious readers, but it took me a little longer. I read what I had to for school, and I had some favorite (mainly children’s) books that I checked out at the library over and over again. I also loved comic strips and comics, particularly Batman, Calvin and Hobbes, The Far Side, and Peanuts. I had subscriptions to children’s magazines that I devoured over and over again between issues, but again, particularly in comparison to my parents and my sister, I wasn’t exactly what one would call a reader until the end of elementary school.
I can remember the actual day things changed. I’d started to become bored with my comic books and children’s stories, even though I still loved them (and do). It was Friday afternoon. Our class was at the school library for a weekly visit, and the librarian saw me moping around. She was a short, squat woman with curly, steel-gray hair and frumpy clothes. She did our weekly story hour and she had an endless mountain of patience for loud children in quiet spaces. She was also observant, and she knew that something was bothering me. When I told her I couldn’t find something to read, she did an interview right on the spot.
“What’s your favorite movie?” she asked.
I didn’t hesitate, though I had trouble naming just one. “I love The Dark Crystal, and Labyrinth, and Willow,” I told her.
“So you like swords and sorcery?” she asked.
Having never heard the term, I agreed with her based on the makeup of the phrase, and she led me to the first book series I ever loved: Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain series. I read the series in a week, reading it at school and at home, and all weekend. She gave me C.S. Lewis next, and then J.R.R. Tolkien. By the end of the school year, I was reading a book nearly every day, and, with the help of the school and the public librarian, eating up my small town’s collection of science fiction and fantasy novels. I started saving up all of my money to buy used copies of books at the local seller, and begged my parents to help me get a library card in a nearby town with a bigger selection. I don’t doubt that my librarian changed my life that day, as I now make my living teaching others to love books.
Reading is major part of my life, which is why I have a difficult time relating to people who don’t like to read. I simply can’t comprehend it, particularly from an educated adult. What I can comprehend, and what I always try to keep in mind as a professor of literature and writing, is that most people who “don’t like to read” probably haven’t found the books or stories they would like to read. My non-reader students approach a lot of literature with something akin to suspicion and always with great reluctance. I can relate. You need only give me certain types of books and my enthusiasm dries up like a desert. I’ve managed to train myself over years and years of schooling to get through and sometimes appreciate reading I don’t particularly enjoy, but for some of my students, there is no motivation to get through it, and as they’ve never had pleasure reading before, they assume that everything they read will be the same.
They’re also surprised when I tell them that there is a connection between reading and writing, something I’ve always known intuitively. If I don’t read, I don’t have the actual words to write. Reading fills up my fingers and my heart with words. The two activities are, for me, basically the same.
So when students ask me how to write better and get better grades on their papers, they’re always surprised to hear me tell them that the best writers are also readers.
The excuse is always the same: “But I don’t have time to read!”
I tell them that in addition to working a full-time job, I also watch television and movies, play videogames, see friends, and I read on average two or three books a week—more when I’m teaching or when I’m writing an academic article. They’re floored. They look at me like I’m speaking tongues.
But it’s true. Writing and reading are, to me, inseparable—two sides of the same coin. Whether you’re talking about writing fiction or writing essays, you cannot be a writer without also being a reader. I wouldn’t presume to suggest to the average nineteen-year-old that he or she needs to read as much as I do to become a good writer, but even reading four books a year is beating the national average, and quite easy to fit into a daily schedule. Ten or twenty pages a day will do it. Quantity and topic (what some might snobbishly call “quality”) don’t matter. Read books about anything and you’ll become a better writer.
But most importantly, make a habit of reading and you’ll fall in love with books—a love story that never ends.