Reading for pleasure
Reading for pleasure
Every book is a professor of something
Earlier this week, while chatting on the phone with my father, he mentioned that he and my mom don’t generally read this newsletter. “I’ll skim it,” he said, “but I generally avoid the troubling parts.”
Troubling parts? I asked. My newsletter is mostly long rambles about writing process. What’s so troubling about that?
Dad told me that Mom doesn’t understand the way I read books. It seems she thinks I’ve forgotten how to read for pleasure.
Last month, Austin Kleon wrote something about this:
Writers are unique kinds of readers because, for them, reading is rarely an end in itself, but a means of generating more writing.
It’s important to me that, while or after consuming something, I spend some time examining it. Mostly I do this on my own; sometimes I do it in conversation with others. I’ll email a friend about a book I know they’ve read, too; Felicia and I will watch a movie, then talk about it awhile; another friend likes to text and recommend things I’ll never watch, and then I’ll watch them, and then we’ll rant at each other about why it was so interesting or off-putting.
Sometimes a thing requires more than one encounter to reveal itself to me. I still remember what it was like to watch Almost Famous when it was released—Jesus, twenty-one years ago now—and walk out of the theater afterward in a kind of haze. I’ve rewatched it fifteen or twenty times, easily; it still makes me feel that way, and I still haven’t quite figured out why.
Back in 2015 I started tracking my reading. Every book I start goes on the list, whether I finish it or abandon it. (I probably abandon about ten percent of the books I attempt; if a book isn’t quite working for me, I’m not precious about it.) The lists usually reflect my erratic reading habits, like a pinball ricocheting between popular fiction and nonfiction and “literary” fiction and craft books and comics. (For example: I’m reading Dream Girl, by Laura Lippman, but also The Body is Not an Apology, by Sonya Renee Taylor, and The Vision, by Tom King; I’ve recently finished Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube, by Blair Braverman, and In the Quick, by Kate Hope Day. If I reduced them to categories: Popular fiction, self-help, comic, memoir, and literary fiction.)
A nonfiction or craft book is easy to extract useful information from, then ruminate on how it might apply to life or work; often that’s the whole intent of the book. I do a lot of that ruminating in this newsletter. But fiction does the same thing for me. Its lessons are almost never directly on the page, but exist between the lines. Reading a great book can challenge me to be a better writer; reading an ill-conceived one can illuminate missteps I can better avoid myself.
A good piece of art tells you a story, but it simultaneously has a conversation with you. Doesn’t matter if it’s a book, a comic strip, a song. The art meets you where you are, and it’s different to every one of us for that reason.
Let me step off the path here for a second. (We’ll come back around to it.)
I recently polished off my web site for, oh, the two hundredth time. (I built my first personal web site when I was nineteen, while dicking around at work; I was supposed to be selling the new iMac G3 to corporate buyers.) The last few years, though, my site’s gone fairly stale. It had started to feel like a brochure for my books, rather than a place for me to exist on the internet. Social media scratched that itch for awhile, but social media got pretty gross. This newsletter has instead been my place to exist. But I still missed having a little blog, where I could dash off little pieces of writing that weren’t substantial enough to put anywhere else.
No longer! The site’s back up. I moved it from Squarespace to Ghost, spent some time modifying a simple, lovely theme, started fresh with my site content, and now…now I can hardly stop writing there. I haven’t blogged in years. But I’m blogging again.
What this means is that I’m writing. I’m writing a lot. Each morning I wake as the sun is still rising, have a bite to eat, read a bit of a book, and then do some combination (or all) of the following:
- Write a few pages in my journal
- Write a bite-sized blog post or two
- Work on the coming week’s newsletter
- Write a scene or chapter or more for one of my two novels-in-progress
Last year, in an effort to keep my writing fit, I took Nina LaCour’s class, The Slow Novel Lab. Though my fellow students were writers of all different skill levels, at different stages of their careers, we all agonized over the same thing: How do you keep going while the world is unraveling? When writing seems like it doesn’t matter at all, how do you get the words down? How do you stay productive?
Nina’s advice was simple.
Some work, on most days.
Over the course of several weeks, she repeated it. I wrote it on a Post-it, and stuck it to the wall beside my desk. I interpret it broadly: It doesn’t matter what the work is, or how much you actually do. Just do a bit of it as often as you’re able.
I’m in a good place right now. Each stream of work—the journal, the newsletter, the blog, the books—feeds the others. Little asides in the journal become an idea for a future newsletter; an idea I explore in the newsletter might refine how I’m writing a novel.
And all of it is fed by reading, reading, reading, and then examining, examining, examining.
(See, I told you we’d circle back.)
The Scottish writer A.L. Kennedy said this:
Read. As much as you can. As deeply and widely and nourishingly and irritatingly as you can.
The last novel I read definitely qualifies as irritating; the one I’m reading currently is nourishing. And they both have things to teach me about my work, though neither of them exists in the world for that reason.
A book meets you where you are. We’re all in different places, so the book finds each of us differently. And each of us brings our own histories to a book. We each see it differently, and take from it things that perhaps nobody else will.
And it’s all pleasure-reading, Mom! I promise.
✏️Until next time,
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