It took the seventh Harry Potter for me to realize I had it backwards.
I remember driving all over the Rancho Santa Fe and Camino San Bernardo hoods of San Diego with that cinder block of a book propped up on my steering wheel during my morning commutes. Finished it in three days alongside all of my friends, some of whom introduced me to John Granger . John has explained Harry Potter by way of classic literature and Latin. The Aeschylus quote Rowling includes at the beginning of book seven sealed John’s argument for me: Rowling really does pull from a “great compost heap of classic literature.” She wasn’t on her own. She wasn’t trying to be original.
She shoots for derivation.
More on that in a moment. For now, let’s say that many of you are a few books or dozens of short stories deep into your career, which may feel as disorienting as if you were a few beers deep. At every stage in this journey, you may take one of two postures. One is that of the learner who kneels to listen. The other is that of the combatant who takes up arms to strike down his competition. The latter won’t end well for you.
Everything you create is not true creation. We are not creators. We’re makers. Tolkien taught us that in On Fairy Stories . At no point in this journey will you start truly from scratch. You’re using a borrowed language (English), with a borrowed form (narrative), amplified by borrowed tropes (genres), made fresh by borrowed subversions (humor, genre bending, etc.), magnified by a borrowed audience (you do not own your readership), and I could go on and on for days about paper pulp and the evolution of your genre and the publishing industry and so forth.
There is a qualitative difference between originality and derivation, an unbridgeable gap. No number of incremental steps can ever bridge that gap and make you wholly original. You will always be borrowing something from the land of derivation in order to cross over into the land of originality.
But that’s not a bad thing.
The best artists in history… well Emerson can say it better than me:
There is no choice to genius. A great man does not wake up on some fine morning and say, ‘I am full of life, I will go to sea and find an Antarctic continent: to-day I will square the circle: I will ransack botany and find a new food for man: I have a new architecture in my mind: I foresee a new mechanic power:’ no, but he finds himself in the river of the thoughts and events, forced onward by the ideas and necessities of his contemporaries.
He stands where all the eyes of men look one way, and their hands all point in the direction in which he should go. The Church has reared him amidst rites and pomps, and he carries out the advice which her music gave him, and builds a cathedral needed by her chants and processions. He finds a war raging: it educates him, by trumpet, in barracks, and he betters the instruction. He finds two counties groping to bring coal, or flour, or fish, from the place of production to the place of consumption, and he hits on a railroad.
Every master has found his materials collected, and his power lay in his sympathy with his people and in his love of the materials he wrought in. What an economy of power! and what a compensation for the shortness of life! All is done to his hand. The world has brought him thus far on his way. The human race has gone out before him, sunk the hills, filled the hollows and bridged the rivers. Men, nations, poets, artisans, women, all have worked for him, and he enters into their labors. Choose any other thing, out of the line of tendency, out of the national feeling and history, and he would have all to do for himself: his powers would be expended in the first preparations.
Great genial power, one would almost say, consists in not being original at all; in being altogether receptive; in letting the world do all, and suffering the spirit of the hour to pass unobstructed through the mind.
— from V. Shakespeare 
Emerson was speaking about a man whose work has endured for 400 years and become the basis for most stories in the English language. Shakespeare. A man who, as it turns out, borrowed 60% of his material from the greats before him.
[You can go ahead and insert Newton’s quote about seeing farther by standing on the shoulders of giants, if you like, but I’m moving on…]
I really don’t understand why we bristle at this. The medievalists certainly didn’t. In medieval writing, you weren’t ready to write your own work until you could do Virgil well. And some people, like Dante, did it so well that their work became original. Originality has nothing to do with your material, your literary prowess, your worldbuilding, or your thematic resonance. Originality comes when you, having danced at the intersection of the classics and your civilization, emerge “knowing thyself.” What’s original is not the content. What’s original is the person presenting that content to the world — sorry, but human beings have not changed in our entire existence as a species. Still we betray. Still we love. Still we murder and sow new life. The only originality is that of the unique soul. Digesting the old books so that you can learn to speak them in your own heart tongue? This too is finding your voice.
There’s this weird idea floating around the internet that the ancient books should be read only by those who hold PhDs in the subject and that hacks like you and me should stick to modern books. You’ll see people online who want to learn about Platonism, for instance, and the last place they go is to a translation of Plato on the shelf of their local independent bookstore. They look for summaries on sparknotes and tidbits on Wikipedia or, what’s worse, the ramblings of some hack textbook writer to teach them about Plato. You see the problem? People would rather choose to read some dull tome forty times the length of Plato, filled with “isms” and bibliographies that will maybe spend one paragraph in thirty actually quoting Plato. The modern reader fears facing one of the great philosophers or one of the great novelists. He feels incompetent as a reader and, what’s worse, that he won’t understand.
The Great Author, because he’s great, makes much more sense than the modern commentator, summarizer, or Wikipedia curator. Even the dumbest student can understand a large swath of Plato, but virtually no one understands the current books on Platonism. You need to know that first-hand knowledge is not only worth more than second-hand knowledge — it’s also typically easier to digest and more fun to read.
Those who know their old books will know I’ve been plagiarizing for the last three paragraphs. Everything I said for the last two-hundred words comes straight out of a forward to the text of St. Athanasius written by the literary critic C.S. Lewis . Dirty trick, I know, but it proves my point twice over, doesn’t it? You should read that whole article, by the way.
But let’s get out of schematics and into engineering something practical.
Romance writers: If you haven’t read Austen, Tristan and Isolde, Lancelot (I’m biased, I know), Herrick’s poems, the original text of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, and others — you probably don’t know your genre very well.
Mystery writers: If you haven’t read Doyle, O’Henry, Frederick Irving Anderson, Poe, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Chesterton’s Father Brown stories, Dickens’ Edwin Drood, and others — you probably don’t know mystery.
Scifi Writers: If you haven’t read Dante (yes, Dante was Scifi  in his day), Da Vinci’s notebook, Jules Verne, any of the “New World” novels before America was colonized, and so forth — you probably are anemic in your own discipline.
We could go on in every category, but I’m running out of room, so I’ll close with a quote from Terry Pratchet that recently resurfaced through Patrick Rothfuss’ blog :
Without a shadow of a doubt, the first fiction ever recounted was fantasy. Guys sitting around the campfire telling each other stories about the gods who made lightning, and stuff like that. They did not tell one another literary stories. They did not complain about difficulties of male menopause while being a junior lecturer on some midwestern college campus. Fantasy is without a shadow of a doubt the ur-literature, the spring from which all other literature has flown.
Up to a few hundred years ago no one would have disagreed with this, because most stories were, in some sense, fantasy. Back in the middle ages, people wouldn’t have thought twice about bringing in Death as a character who would have a role to play in the story. Echoes of this can be seen in Pilgrim’s Progress, for example, which hark back to a much earlier type of storytelling. The epic of Gilgamesh is one of the earliest works of literature, and by the standard we would apply now— a big muscular guy with swords and certain godlike connections— that’s fantasy. The national literature of Finland, the Kalevala. Beowulf in England. I cannot pronounce Bahaghvad-Gita but the Indian one, you know what I mean. The national literature, the one that underpins everything else, is by the standards that we apply now, a work of fantasy.
Now I don’t know what you’d consider the national literature of America, but if the words Moby Dick are inching their way towards this conversation, whatever else it was, it was also a work of fantasy. Fantasy is kind of a plasma in which other things can be carried. I don’t think this is a ghetto. This is, fantasy is, almost a sea in which other genres swim. Now it may be that there has developed in the last couple of hundred years a subset of fantasy which merely uses a different icongraphy, and that is, if you like, the serious literature, the Booker Prize contender. Fantasy can be serious literature. Fantasy has often been serious literature. You have to be fairly dense to think that Gulliver’s Travels is only a story about a guy having a real fun time among big people and little people and horses and stuff like that. What the book was about was something else. Fantasy can carry quite a serious burden, and so can humor. So what you’re saying is, strip away the trolls and the dwarves and things and put everyone into modern dress, get them to agonize a bit, mention Virginia Woolf a few times, and there! Hey! I’ve got a serious novel.
But you don’t actually have to do that.
The fantasy list is mandatory reading for all writers. As Terry said, peace be upon him: fiction is simply a subcategory of “fantasy.” Homer, Beowulf, The Bahagavad Gita, The Edda, The Panchatantra, The Arabian Nights, Bel and the Dragon, Lebor n hUidre, Arthur, the Cherokee Myths — these are the foundational imaginative works of major civilizations. All of them fantastic. All of them fiction. Even Chesterton argued this in The Everlasting Man. Many of them, ironically, were written for children as I pointed out in my response to Ms. Graham ’s Against YA.
All of that to say, you should at least be reading one old book for every three new ones, but I would push for an every-other ratio until your have-reads in the classics catch up to your have-reads in the moderns. Classically speaking, ours is — per capita — one of the most illiterate cultures in history. Ironically tragic when you consider that we have more access to more texts and more humans who can read and write than any society in history.
I end with Twain:
“The man who has the capacity to read great books and does not has no advantage over the man who cannot.”
What’s your ratio of old to new books? Defining old as at least “public domain,” what old books are mandatory reading for your genre? Why?