I suspect most of you have a dangerous habit. You get an URGE, your cautions are clicked off, you are impelled by an irresistible chain. You indulge, synapses sizzling. You are spent, but oh, the afterglow. What have you done, you naughties? Why, you’ve been reading. It’s a harder habit to drop than smoking.
That thought occurred to me when I saw my mom reading with a big magnifying glass, craning her head thisaways and that to reach the words. My mom is 91, and her eyes are shot, but she’s still jonesing for words. Even though she listens to audio fiction (and digs it), she still wants to take in the text with her eyes, to turn up the heat in the brainpan where metaphors sizzle, to ride on a line of words and feel their curves in the wind. Readers: shameless.
And I bring my mother up, because I am the hopeless crack baby of her addictions: she exposed me early to the intoxicating pipe of reading.
There’s the treachery. Reading’s a seduction by atmospherics: seeing someone voluntarily repeat an action over and over toggles a switch in your system that whispers “And you can do that too.” When drooling was the most reasonable reaction, I had the usual suspects of kids’ books read to me, followed by reading fairly early on my own. I’d been very aware that my mom read big books, tomes—it seemed that she was into this thing and deep. Later I realized that many of these worthies were Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, which seemed to take some luster away. (Do you know that To Kill A Mockingbird was a Reader’s Digest book? What did they take out, the mockingbird?)
Reading: At This Point, You Have No Choice
I did hazily understand that people do have a choice in their pursuits; my mother still made plenty of time for martinis and poker. But once it gets a little beyond choice, only reading fulfills the addiction caused by reading—watching “Ice Road Truckers” episodes is a weak substitute. Being word-hungry is a little like loving ice cream: when you eat a little, you want more. Same with words.
I went from lolling in the aisles at my local library reading all the dinosaur books to reading all the sports biographies to reading comic books to reading literary fiction. A heavy cardboard refrigerator box in my back yard—until the winter rains turned it into a castle of mush—was my adolescent reading retreat. I’d bring a clock, a pillow and a book out to the box, and high-dive into a narrative. Go under the surface and then—gone.
Of course, drinking deep draughts from the flowing fire hose of words invariably impels one to point the hose outward as well. [Note: there is nothing in the least sexual about that last line. Move along now.] You want to pour your own words on a page, and see if they float or sink. Or stink, which is often the case in the early stages. [Second note: these early stages can extend a mite longer than desired.]
Reading Broadly Isn’t Reading About Broads
But reading broadly, reading deeply does give you a nose for what works in a narrative, or what stinks. And the glory of it is, what works can be Michael Chabon’s headlong rush of words, canoeing through subordinate clauses and asides, cornering hard and crashing in a smiling heap, or Marilynne Robinson’s seven-word grace note of a sentence, a petal that opens with a hint of faint color, felt like that soft wind you only sense when the breeze stops blowing. So many ways to shuffle and deal the cards of literature.
Earlier, I did make fun of the reality shows, but I don’t want to be quite so sniffy. I once read a great annotated version of Lolita, where in the notes the editor said that Nabokov was known for the eclecticism of his reading. He described a colleague seeing Nabokov returning to his flat, his arms filled with pulp magazines, saying something like, “Great ads!” Who knows, your next character’s name might come from the name of a popular new deodorant.
Writers hear of those surveys concerning the high percentage of people who don’t read, who read less than a book a year (just the odd-numbered pages), who have read no books after high school. Ignore such. Write for the readers who have the track marks on their eyes, who get the shakes when a new Stephen King novel is promised (and who shake more when it’s read), whose thou after that loaf of bread and a jug of wine is a book. They are there, and in numbers.
I was never good with math, but here’s a formula that has promise: good reading + more good reading can lead to good writing. You can even try that trick that says writing out passages of fabled writer’s words can make you a better writer too (though don’t try and publish some filched Alice Munro as your own on Kindle Direct).
Reading: the designer drug with no expiration date. So suck the sweet plum of the pages, and savor the sugar of words.
Well, good WUers, is reading your ice cream? Is it an activity for which there isn’t a substitute? Do you ever read and eat ice cream at the same time? And was it mama or papa who didn’t raise no fool?