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Thursday Reading FUNdamentals: The Ineffective Reading Habits of Highly Unsuccessful Writers

April 22, 2010

When most people think of writers, they probably assume that writers are real bookworms.  They must love books because they write books, right?  I’ll admit that I am a pretty lazy reader.  I’m not like over half of Americans who never read anything more than a TV Guide, but I’m far from a voracious reader either.  Mostly I just read during lunch breaks at work and when there’s nothing good on TV or when there’s a power outage or something inclement like that.  Otherwise I’m content to just lie on the couch and watch a movie or hockey game or whatever.

I’m also what I’d describe as a “mercenary reader.”  A lot of people if they read at all will pretty much follow one genre.  My sisters generally only read romance books (though the youngest has been getting more in the vampire genre) and my brother reads sci-fi/fantasy.  My mom alternates between romance and “cozy” mysteries–especially ones with cats in them.  Me, on the other hand, will alternate between literary, sci-fi, and sometimes other genres if there’s a reason.  For instance here are the last few books I’ve read:

  1. The Green Mile by Stephen King
  2. Possession by AS Byatt
  3. The Serialist by David Gordon
  4. Snapped by Pamela Klaffke
  5. Bad Movies by Peter Joseph Swanson

That’s a fairly diverse mix, though not as diverse as it sometimes can be.  There’s also a diverse number of reasons I read those books.

  1. I hadn’t read any King and the used bookstore didn’t have The Long Walk which someone told me to read so I just got The Green Mile instead.  I did read The Long Walk eventually and this was just sitting on my shelf for a while.
  2. I think this was on the Time “Great Books of the Century” or whatever list so I was planning to read it at some point and I found it at a library bag sale, so I figured what the heck it was less than $1.
  3. This I got from the Amazon Vine program for free because the plot sounded more interesting to me than most of what was on the newsletter.
  4. Another Vine selection, but also one a “friend” on Gather had reviewed and the plot sounded vaguely interesting even though it was “chick lit.”
  5. Written by a Gather “friend” and I’d seen a few excerpts posted and decided to give it a try.

So there’s no real pattern to the last books I read, mostly just chaotic reading on a whim.  It’s really easy to do this now days because I hardly ever buy books from a brick-and-mortar store.  Most books I’ll get from Amazon online.  If I do go to a brick-and-mortar store it’s usually a used book store or a library sale where things can be a bit more jumbled up.  I’m definitely not the type who shops in just one section.

There are other, more focused, reasons I read certain books.  As I mentioned, Possession was on the Time Books of the Century list.  At one point in 2007 I cobbled together that list with a couple others to make a Great Books list where I decided I’d try to read as many Great Books from the past 200 years as I could.  I read quite a bit of Great stuff like Catch-22, The Heart is A Lonely Hunter, The Power and the Glory, Native Son, Dubliners, and Portnoy’s Complaint.  Then I got tired of all the heavy reading and decided to read more fun books, so that got me reading the complete Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series and Dirk Gently series.  In turn someone on Gather recommended the Discworld series so I read a few of those and eventually amassed almost the whole set and read them in order from start to finish, which took a while because there’s 30-some books in the series.

Another example is that while I was writing my novel, Where You Belong, I reread every John Irving novel from start to finish because my book was supposed to be in that style.  Or when I wrote my novella The Naked World, I read Michael Chabon’s Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay over and over again because it was supposed to be similar to that style.

There are rare times when I’ll get obsessed about an author and read a number of their books in a row.  This happened with John Irving, John Updike, Kurt Vonnegut, Anne Tyler, Richard Ford, Timothy Zahn, and Orson Scott Card to name a few.  It isn’t necessarily that I love their work and want to read more so much as sometimes I can’t think of anything better to read.

I guess you could say there is a rhyme and reason sometimes but maybe that they aren’t very good rhymes and reasons.  I really can’t say if all the diversity is a good thing or a bad thing in terms of writing.  It might be better if I just locked into one genre and tried to master that instead of sampling different genres and styles all the time.

I think though I learned this mercenary reading from a young age.  It was 4th or 5th grade when my school participated in something called Battle of the Books.  Each school would have a team and compete against each other in some kind of quiz show type thing.  There was a list of books of different genres and I remember I read a whole bunch of them.  I really can’t remember any of them at this point.  (I do remember my school’s team lost because they were relying on me to be the ace and that’s just never a good idea.  If you want to get psychological maybe that’s why I’m not a voracious reader.)

Anyway, because of my laziness I don’t consider myself particularly “well read.”  There are still plenty of Great Books and authors I haven’t read yet.  (For instance Moby-Dick, War and Peace, and anything by Jane Austen.)  If I were at a cocktail party I’d make a total ass of myself, like the country cousin paying a visit.  (Another part of that is that I majored in accounting in college so unlike many other writers I had only a couple of literature classes, thus I was never forced to read many Great Books.)

Then another thing that holds me back from reading besides the laziness is that I like to write.  I hardly read anything on weekends because I’m too busy writing and after I’m done writing I usually don’t feel like reading anything difficult.

I’m rambling, but there’s probably some good advice in there somewhere.  Certainly the way things have gone for me in terms of a writing career I wouldn’t recommend my reading style.  If you really want to be a writer you should be less lazy than me and read more often.  Not only to help your writing, but also to support the industry you expect to write your meal ticket.

With the way I read, a Kindle or similar device might be a good idea at some point.  Then it would be easy for me to pick and choose different, random books on a whim.  Maybe as ebook technology advances–and it overcomes the threat posed by muffins–we’ll all end up reading that way, sort of like how people with an iPod or other MP3 player usually have all different musical genres on it.  (Mine for instance includes everything from Bill Shatner to Guns N Roses.)  Is that a good thing?  I have no idea.

Since I am moving all of my books (and other possessions) next week there will be no actual blog entries.  Instead I’ll be posting the prologue and first 4 chapters of my current WIP:  Tales of the Scarlet Knight, Vol 5.  You can catch up on the first four volumes here.  Smell you later.


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  1. I’m somewhat the opposite of you. I do write a lot — pretty much every day — but I also read a great deal. Fortunately, I read very quickly so I can suck down a book in short order. I read Stephen King’s UNDER THE DONE in about 3 days; admittedly I was on vacation. But like you, I haven’t read many of the “great” books. I waded through MOBY-DICK because I felt I ought to… it was a good read but I wouldn’t say I found it life-changing.

    And what the hell are you doing with Shatner on your iPod? First album or second?

  2. I have both Shatner albums. The first one was on sale last April Fool’s Day on Amazon for a buck so I bought it out of curiosity and I actually liked it. Then I had a coupon so I downloaded the one he did with Ben Folds and that one was good too, especially his version of “Common People” and original tunes “That’s Me Trying” and “I Can’t Get Behind That.”

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