Friday, October 30, 2009

Oh Sweet Irony

Some people, you may be one of them, have a passion for reading and can pour through a book a day. It’s easy for these people to find a page turner and even if a book doesn’t take hold of the reader’s imagination or spark critical thought right away they keep trudging through. Maybe they believe that even if they don’t particularly enjoy the book there will be some self improvement by adding to their own knowledge base or expanding their minds in some way. I’m sure that may be true but to quote Bob Dylan “It ain’t me, babe”.

I can read and have tried to read many, many books but none of them have held me from cover to cover. I’ve forced myself near the end of several books but I’ve only completed a few. Many of you are probably thinking right now something about my not having enough imagination to truly enjoy a good book. Well, at the risk of offending, you’re wrong. When I read I can hear the voices of each character in my head and I can see the scenes but the actual act of reading is just a chore for me. I will read an article in a magazine, a blog or any of a number of things on the web but it is for the information contained within; not necessarily the enjoyment of reading.

A few days ago the university that I attend had a guest speaker, P.J. O’Rourke. He is a political satirist and journalist who has written for Rolling Stone, Playboy and Car and Driver, among others. During his talk he told the small audience that writing should meet at least one of three criteria: to entertain, educate or inform. Ok, I’ll buy that. He went on to add that in order to be a good writer a person must read, a lot. That’s when he lost me. As I listened to the rest of what he had to say I couldn’t help but think that he was wrong. He must be wrong. I mean, several people who like to read enjoy reading what I write so it must be good…at least a little. Once he’d finished there was time for a question and answer session; my chance to pick his brain a bit. One, two, three people asked questions and still he hadn’t acknowledged me so that I could speak. Another couple of people asked and asked again until finally, I was given the chance to ask him a question. The last question of the afternoon.

Me - Mr. O’Rourke, I know that you said that a writer must be a reader, but I don’t enjoy reading. People who do enjoy reading, however, enjoy reading my stuff. The point of my question is this: Is there anything that you would suggest in lieu of reading to make me a better writer?

Mr. O’Rourke – (paraphrased) Find something that you enjoy reading…There is a very small percentage of people who can be good writers without a lot of reading. (At this point I told him about the magazine articles and news etc.) You may just be a 2 or 3 thousand word guy. I’ve heard it said that one out of every one child has ADD. (Was this some kind of underhanded slap in my face?) He went on to talk about how sometimes he doesn’t enjoy what he’s reading and recommended that I look into short stories and he talked about how they were in vogue in the 18th century. He then thanked the school and the audience for having him.

I let what he’d said sink in a bit more but it still didn’t sit well with me. I’ve thought about how odd it is that I enjoy writing so much but lack a writer’s love for reading. The only way that I can make sense of it is to think of the things that I do enjoy; movies, television, music, conversation and observing nature and people. There is much enjoyment to be found in an understanding of how things and people interact. There is as much truth and provocative though in the songwriting of Robert Hunter as there is in a novel or essay. I guess you could say that I read sounds and images rather than words.

What is certain is that I won’t be actively looking for things that I do enjoy reading so that I can fit someone else’s idea of what makes a good writer. Instead I will continue along the same path that I’ve been traveling. I’m sure that I’ll grow as a writer but I doubt that it will be because of something that I’ve read, rather it will be because of something that I’ve seen or heard that made me think in a different way.


  1. You know you have a point. There are some books I cannot get through. For example Anita Desai's 'Clear Light of Day'. She takes paragraphs to describe rose petals falling to the ground. She may be a very good writer but to me she just makes me feel creatively constipated. Now 'the Kite Runner' grabbed me from the begining to the end. Finished the book in a single sitting, 'Marley and Me' was another favorite.

    Here in Singapore, where kids aren't taught the fundamentals of grammar or punctuation, that may be true. I think what PJ, if I may call him that, was stressing is that we have to read, not just for enjoyment but to study the structure of the story etc.

    Ok, in my humble opinion, there are some who are born writers, who have that innate ability to write, to express themselves with great ease; then there are those who aren't natural writers but who work hard at developing their skills. The the latter have the ability to become good writers but they will never be great writers. They will always have to make that extra effort when it comes to their writing.

    Dan, having read your blog. I can say will all certainty that you are one of those writers who fall in the former category. You are a natural. You have the ability to grab the reader and draw them in without fail. I really mean this. I will read whatever you write, be it a bio, a work of fiction or stereo instruction manuals. You've been blessed with a talent many would like, but very few actually have.

    I wish I could write like you. Keep writing!

  2. Encouragement like yours is all that I need, well that and inspiration. Thanks, Dave!

  3. I've also heard it repeated over and over that a good writer must be an avid reader. Stephen King takes this line in his book "On Writing." In fact, this is so often stated that it has become almost a mantra.

    On the one hand I do believe that reading people you enjoy (and therefore want to emulate) is a valuable tool in improving your writing. It gives you someone who illustrates good writing and also gives you a standard against which to compare your own work.

    On the other hand, much more important that reading is thinking. Merely stringing words together in an interesting way is not good writing, at least not to me. It's like a movie with great special effects, beautiful talent, great acting, but a plot so predictable that you could write the next line. (I actually watched a TV show like that the other night. Drove me crazy--and that's not a long drive).

    So while I do think that reading someone you enjoy makes you a better writer, it is not the sine qua non of writing.

    I've read your work and you write well. So it is a puzzlement to me why you don't like to read. I suspect it is because your reading hasn't caused you to think. There's been no "aha" moment in your reading. When you find the author that does that, you'll be hooked forever.

    Just my 2¢. :-)

  4. As an avid reader I must ask, what have you been trying to read? I know the answer may be a bit consuming... but it would help me wrap my mind around this a bit better.

  5. I have read Steven King, Tom Clancy, J.R.R. Tolkien, Bill O'Reilly, and others. There has been a lot of interesting content but nothing really gripping.

    Reading, to me, is just a bit laborious. I read to learn but there's little to no pleasure. Too many authors use too many words to tell a story that could be just as well told in half the pages.

  6. It's true that writers like King and Tolkien are considered to be great. That is not because they are easy to read, in fact it is often the opposite. Their work is so layered it is actually a more difficult read.

    I recommend:

    Strange Highways - a collection of fictional short stories by Dean Koontz

    Hitchhiker's Guide - Douglas Adams' Sci-Fi comedy, engaging and easy to read. The humor is dry British humor, so if you dislike Monty Python style humor, then ignore this one.

    Lies My Teacher Told Me - a nonfiction that corrects the history of the US as told in school.

    Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs - Thoughts from Klosterman an enjoyable read with fun concepts in bite sized pieces.

    Let me know if you try any of these, and what you think...