A Writer Reads

Bill Roorbach, in his book Writing Life Stories, insists that writers must do two things in order to become good at their art: 1) write, and 2) read. The first is self-evident, although I’m sure the author meant that we should write a lot. But what about reading? Is it really necessary to be a reader to be a writer?

I would guess that it’s the rare writer who doesn’t read. Most people fall in love with the written word when they’re first learning to decipher it. Not everyone who reads will be a writer, but the two go together like torturing animals goes with being a sociopath. (The association between reading and writing is more benign, though, needless to say.)

I read for many reasons. It used to be that I read almost exclusively for entertainment and escape. I still read for that reason (usually to mask a bad period of depression or anxiety), but I also read for information and inspiration. I have several non-fiction books going at the same time. I read a little in one, until it gives me an idea that I find I want to write about and then I pick up another and read it until it does the same. Rarely do I read a non-fiction book straight through. I have fifty-some books out of the library right now. I’m not reading them all at one time; I tend to shift around to three or four and then switch to another group. Sometimes I don’t read more than a couple of chapters before deciding I don’t need that book anymore. Sometimes I find that a certain book just isn’t that interesting. But I like to have this many on hand–just in case.

In case I can’t think of anything to write about. In case I get bored. In case I feel curious about something. In case I want to expand my mind. Right now I have several books about feminism and about writing. I have a book about Catholicism and one about the black experience in America. I have a couple about personal finance. I have two autobiographies set in Berlin during the war years. I have three or four recently released novels. And these are just my library books. My personal library is all over the place: history (German, Islamic, Indian, World War I and II), religious books, collections of essays, poetry and literature, books on ADD, German language textbooks and tapes, gardening books, reference books, memoirs and biographies, social commentary, literary criticism, children’s books and feminist writings. And of course that’s not including all my writing books, which I will go into in another post.

I hold onto my books forever. A few years ago when I was really broke, I sold quite a few of my books on half.com. But most of the ones I sold were “new” books that I picked up at garage sales and discount bookstores. I still have all my textbooks from any class I’ve ever taken. All the books I’ve received through introductory offers from book clubs. And of course the ones I’ve been given. I keep them all.

Just in case.