It seems a widely agreed upon fact that to be a good writer one must also read well. Fine.
Thinking about this recently, I have found it does cause some problems. Namely, how does one read well? Will your inner reader complement your inner writer? Are the two selves involved in peaceful symbiosis, like a bird picking between the teeth of a crocodile, or are they a Jekyll and Hyde kind of affair, with one always fighting the influence of the other?
In short, how selective should we be about our reading?
This thought has been plaguing me recently because of an article which stated that a lot of the general public in the UK admitted to feeling regret over never having read the so-called classics, such as “Moby Dick” and “War and Peace.” They presumably felt that, simply because these books were agreed to be the best, they should be required reading.
Having not read a great deal of the listed books myself, I too started to feel guilty. Surely me, a self-appointed purveyor and wrangler of the written word should not only have read the greatest books humankind has to offer, but should be rereading them to the point of worship?
Well, that is what I thought until quite recently.
Before coming to New York, the majority of my reading was what I would have called the “classics.” I loved reading Melville and Twain and Austen and James not only because they were great, but because they were dead. Mainly because they were dead. Death was proof that a writer had lived in a more inspirational, better time and therefore had more to offer. These geniuses had managed to jump ship before modern mediocrity and mind-numbing technology set in. There were no good books anymore because a living, great writer would somehow be living a life comparable to my own, with the same influences and problems, and I couldn’t quite get my head around that. Woody Allen called it Golden Age thinking. I think I was just cynical.
That all changed when I started my MFA. The beauty of the program came not from the results or the hard work, but from the opportunity for discovery. Being a Creative Writing student in New York allowed me to see that great writers do currently exist. My inner cynic witnessed great writers in the flesh. Classic writers suddenly seemed irrelevant and dull. I was soon convinced that the Golden Age was happening right now.
This train of thought eventually hit an obstacle. I’m not a native New Yorker; I take a trip home every so often and find myself surrounded by my childhood books. As I was searching through my old bookcase I found “Moby Dick,” still with the bookmark wedged in halfway. A poignant reminder of my inability to finish it. My reader’s guilt, the longing to know literature’s greatest heroes, relive the glorious past, came flooding back.
“Moby Dick,” my own elusive leviathan, threatened to make me give up on my current reading in order to finish what I had begun long ago.
With a sigh, I wondered whether I had fallen into the same trap with modern writers as I had with classic ones: idolizing them and, as a result, finding fault with the others. There must be a way to solve this problem, I thought.
Alternating between reading dead and alive authors was one option, but my own life seemed too woefully short to allow me to work consecutively. And going only for novels whose author’s survival was questionable seemed idiotic.
I was trapped between the two golden ages, not knowing which to commit to.
This thought rose up in me whenever I reached the last chapter of a book I had painstakingly chosen to read. What would I read next? The wrong choice would just waste time I could be spending on someone more inspirational.
The answer would come from one of the modern masters. I was at the New York Public library, listening to Martin Amis talk about his latest book, when something he said struck me. He told the audience his father, formidable and respected author Kingsley Amis, would read the trashiest literature he could. Because he enjoyed it. And, he noted, it had no influence on how his father wrote. Then he simply laughed this fact off, as if it was not even worth dwelling on.
Now, I know that whatever rules Kingsley Amis played by don’t necessarily apply to me. Yet this gave my mind the wiggle room it needed to accept that there is no hard and fast rule when it comes to choosing what to read.
Are there certain books that everyone should read? Possibly. Should a writer be selective about which books they spend time with? Again, possibly.
Is there be anything required for art other than hard work, a good idea and happiness? No, I don’t think so.
Not even the greatest master on your bedside table can save you if you’re not willing to look at yourself as a separate entity and work hard on your own creation, regardless of what others are doing. After all, we don’t consider the crocodile any less intimidating when he is without his little cleaner bird.