04 December 2023

Books, books, books. And more books.

        I guess I was a pretty privileged kid growing up, though it often didn’t feel that way.  There were plenty of challenges, that I won’t go into here, though it’s safe to say we had financial security and little danger of physical harm, despite our devotion to risky behavior and thwarting our parents’ best laid plans to keep us safe.

         One unalloyed benefit to my upbringing was we were a family of readers.  My mother, older brother, aunts and grandmothers all read like crazy.  Books were all over the houses, and easily accessible.  Many were popular fictions – detective novels and door-stop bestsellers, but there was plenty of more erudite fare, and all I had to do was reach out my hand and grab anything open on a coffee table or nightstand.

        When we were young children, we were read to every night.  I will go out on a limb and declare there’s no better way to instill a love of the written word on tender young minds.  We did it with our own son, and I think it helped form his life in the best possible way. 

         I wasn’t a very good student.  I never liked just sitting there listening to someone in the front of a room talk at me.  But because I read so much, I could make up for it in odd ways that bailed me out.  And I could always write well enough, since I’d been trained at home on the subtleties, ebb and flow, the nuances of language. 


         I read virtually everything my older brother read, since he’d pass the books and articles to me when he was finished.  Because I did everything he did, this was standard practice.  He was an omnivorous, if idiosyncratic, reader, so this also served me well.  My mother and I discussed these books, so there was instruction along the way. I developed some friendships with older kids who would also pass along their favorite books, which I would introduce into the family literary ecosystem. 


         One particularly precocious kid I knew turned me on to physics, which totally befuddled my family members, though he gifted me with a lifelong interest in the subject, little of which I’ve ever understood.  I still like reading about it, even if the comprehension is fleetingly transitory.


         In the same way, I love archeology, paleontology, geography (maps!), architecture, auto mechanics, Buddhism, European history and military strategy, by knowing just enough to keep reading, even if only a tiny bit sticks. 


        I owe it all to our mother and grandmothers reading us A. A Milne and Dr. Seuss, while I followed along, deciphering the words as she spoke.  It was magical, this transformation of thought into symbols that you could then retain, and reproduce yourself.  What a marvel, what a gift. 


        If this be privilege, then I’m among the most blessed who ever lived.  I didn’t know to seek it out, it was just delivered to me, tucked into bed and hanging on every word. 


       Not all readers write, but all writers read.  It’s essential.  The first thing a writing coach will say is, “Read.”   You need to swim in that ocean of words to be facile in conjuring them yourself.  However, just to heighten the challenge of writing, you also have to find your own voice.  I stopped reading fiction for several years so I could clean all the chattering voices out of my head, and with luck, find my own.  Though I didn’t stop reading nonfiction, focusing on the best writers I could find (Winston Churchill, Freud, Stephen Jay Gould, Lewis Thomas, Machiavelli, Kant, Malcom Goldstein, Bill Bryson, etc.)  And along the way, I learned a few things. 


        So I’ll repeat what I’ve already written.  If you want to write, read.  And then write all the time.  Write anything, just don’t stop.  After a few million words, you’ll begin to know what you sound like, and that’s the beginning.  You can take it from there.    


  1. Elizabeth Dearborn04 December, 2023 13:42

    Yeah. I ruined my eyes, reading in bed with a flashlight until my parents would come into the bedroom & take the flashlight away! I started reading my daughter a story every night when she was two weeks old. Once in a while I'd get tired of her little kids' books so I would read to her out of a flower or office supply catalog. She didn't know the difference.

  2. Yup! I am always baffled when I have students in my writing classes who say they don't read. Why would you want to be a writer if you don't love reading? Good column Chris!

    1. A writer who doesn't read is a musician who never listens to music, an actor who ignores the theater, a clown who can only juggle air.

  3. My grandmother was a teacher, and an aunt and uncle were journalists. My sister and I are the two youngest of eleven first cousins and by far the youngest. Five of those cousins and I became teachers, and two of the other cousins were involved in theater. All of them read to my sister and me from the time we were old enough to sit upright.

    Molly and I both entered kindergarten reading at about fifth-grade level, and we were stunned to find some classmates who didn't even know the alphabet. To this day, when I read, I hear different voices saying the words. Some of those voices are my parents, grandmother, aunt, or cousins. When I write, I often hear different voices, and they change until I find the "right" one for the character.

    I feel sorry for people who don't read. They must be so lonely...

  4. We've all heard the occasional wannabe writer claim he (why is it too often 'he'?) doesn't like to read. I've heard students say they don't read classics because they're "old" and presumably irrelevant because they had new things to say. But the oddest came just days ago. A girl said she read little because so much was cultural appropriation.

    1. She will remain ignorant and forever the prey of nonsense like cultural appropriation.


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