Thursday, July 21, 2005

You Are What You Read

The world may be full of fourth-rate writers, but it's also full of fourth-rate readers. — Stan Barstow

You say that you want to write? Good, I'm glad to hear it. Welcome to the club.

But before you start to send out work thinking it is the best in the world and going to sell a zillion copies and going to net you a fortune as big as that Rowling woman, there's one thing you must do.

You must read.

You must read.

Not just the occasional book, but as many books and as hungrily as you can.

Good books. Bad books.

Books in any genre. But most especially books in the genre you want to write.

"Go away and read a thousand books," Raman tells wanna-be writer who wander into his shop to seek advice.

And I'd say, yes, more or less, that's exactly it.

Because if you don't read, how will you enrich your store of words?

Because if you don't read, how will you know what's possible?

Because if you don't read, how do you develop that inner critical voice that tells you whether your work is any good or not?

The answer is, quite simply, that you won't.

And I don't think you will will be able to write anything that will interest me.

If your time-impoverished-pragmatic-self baulks at the idea of carving out some reading time in a busy day, and you feel guilty because you see reading as an indulgence, remember: reading time is really writing time, and it is the most effective, least painful way to improve your craft.


If I haven't made my case persuasively enough, please go and read this essay by writer Patricia Ann Jones.

...give me a man or woman who has read a thousand books and you give me an interesting companion. Give me a man or woman who has read perhaps three and you give me a dangerous enemy indeed. -Anne Rice

Good writing comes from good reading. You have to do as much as possible and read as widely as possible. Only by reading can you understand your own work. - Tash Aw

A good style simply doesn't form unless you absorb a dozen topflight authors every year. - F. Scott Fitzgerald


bibliobibuli said...

You know it, so why are you dragging your feet? You're so lucky to have an excuse to read!!! And because you write poetry, you need to read poetry. Was going to write about that too but decided this wass enough for one entry!

oshun said...

I want a full-time job of reading. I don't mind being a guinea pig. I will, for example, read Murakami in different situations - with wine, without wine, outdoor, indoor, alone in the dark, with friends at the dinner table - and then I would provide reports on the effects of surroundings to reading.

Reader for hire! Anyone? Anyone?

Kak Teh said...

That is what Samad Said said to me - read anything and everything. He reads at least five or six at a time.
My husband's ambition is to own a bookshop with a cafe. I know what he wants to do - read, while I serve behind the counter!

dark empyrean said...


I think you read more than me. Seriously, I think you do. But it didnt make you a better writer. Nope it made you a good researcher. Someone who can use quotes very well.

You know what doubt I have about reading others' work? You lose your own identity. Try this. Read Coelho, then Wei Hui followed by Dan Brown in that particular sequence, you brain will be so mushed you cant write something decent after that.

bibliobibuli said...

Oshun - was laughing at this! I think you need to become an academic so that you can get a research grant. Well, I've got as job buying fiction for a library so maybe if you jsut keep dreaming it may happen. (Or else you might try getting a rich husband ...)

Kak Teh - I'd love a bookshop with a cafe! You should get staff to run the cafe while you both sit and read, or enjoy chatting bookishly with your customers.

dark empyrean - I probably have read more than you, if not becasue i've knocked around this planet a good two decades longer than you. Have read some Coelho and Dan Brown but survived because of all the great stuff I've read ... Proulx, De Lillo, Atwood and so many etcs. I can't count them. Wei Hui I didn't actually like, but thought the book interesting.

The way I see it, if you eat a healthy diet, a few burgers and coke won't hurt you. But if that's all you eat, that's not good.

If your reading has included plenty of good stuff, you can analyse the not so good stuff and learn from why it's bad.

"But it didnt make you a better writer." How do you know what kind of writer I'd be if I never read? Even I don't know that for sure! (But can make a pretty good guess!)

Drop some of your cyncism d.e. and pick up a good book! ;-D

Adam C said...

Hmm.. I totally agree that good writing comes from reading a lot. I've also heard people say reading a lot can affect your writer's voice... Wonder how they got that!?

My dilemma is that I have a habit of carving out writing time everyday... but then I might drift off to reading and when that happens I feel so guilty and tell myself, you should be writing!

I'm also curious... When a person reads so much, wouldn't she feel an urge to write? I ask because I know a lot of people who read a lot but when I ask them about writing insights it sounds as if they've never tried it. The same is true with book critics, who know their literature inside-out, and I wonder why these people who know so much don't embark a novel or some short stories.. They know so much!

Maybe I'm strange. When I watch a good movie I fancy I want to direct one. When I hear a good song I want to learn to sing it and write my own song. When I read a good book, the same.

priya said...

I have adam's problem - reading when I should be chained to the desk writing away.

Even my blog suffers much neglect =P

Btw Sharon, I saw you in KL today! I waved and screamed over traffic, but you seemed adamant at crossing the street, so that was that. =)

bibliobibuli said...

adam c - interesting question and I'm not sure I know the answer ...There are probably a lot of people who are content to be good readers. But I think too there might be some people who are afraid to become writers, at least intitially, because they compare themselves to the good stuff they have read. Some hungry readers just need a bit of a puch and encouragment to begin writing - I've seen it happen several times.

I used to have the same problem of reading when iw as supposed to be writing. Recently though I've found it hard to concentrate on books, but really enthusiastic to write. Maybe we go through phases ...

Minamona - yes! Dump a book if it doesn't interest you within 50 pages or so. Life's too short and there are too many books out there that you will love. I used to feel guilty if I didn't read to the end of each book I picked up, but I've got over that now.

Priya! Goodness, I am sorry I didn't see you. I was probably worried about getting run over, especially as I couldn't cross the road very fast (I've pulled a muscle in my leg.) Was just from a meeting at British Council. (BTW is this the "exploding jelly" Priya i'm talking to?)

Chet said...

Do books that we do not finish (cuz too boring) count in the 1,000 books we're supposed to read?

Chet said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
bibliobibuli said...

Why not, Chet? In rejecting the book you've learned something about why books fails to capture their audience.

BTW - i wrote about abandoning books before here .

oshun said...

sharon, im not so sure about not finishing a book. i have to finish a book somehow otherwise i feel guilty.

the only book i didn't manage to finish is the God of Small Things five years ago because i was in such a bad state of mind and i couldn't appreciate the descriptiveness (thinking it was long-winded!). but it haunts me until today, that i didn't finish it! but now it's so hard to pick it up again.

Chet said...

oshun - don't feel bad. You're not the only one who didn't complete The God of Small Things. Neither did I!

iesnek said...

If reading a thousand books helps with writing skills, I'd say I'm not a very good example of it coming true. :(

My problem occurs despite the fact I do read alot, my parents encouraged me to read since i was young, we've even got a mini-library in the house. The joy of having two English lecturers as parents, england must be powderful or else every teacher rubs it into your face that you're not up to your parents standards.


Ok, I ramble, back to my problem. When I dabble in writing, I always have the faint nagging feeling that I'm not being original enough!

And my writing just seems to be way unfocused! Is it because i don't concentrate on particular genres to draw ideas from?

It's more than a bit distressing, seeing that I'm actually writing for a living these days. I live in fear of my boss telling me that I'm not cut out for writing.

Anonymous said...


That's how I'm trying to view "reading" these days. It's part of "writing" work. Eases some of the guilt of "you should be writing instead of reading."


bibliobibuli said...

Julian - I always have the faint nagging feeling that I'm not being original enough!... And my writing just seems to be way unfocused!... It's more than a bit distressing, seeing that I'm actually writing for a living these days. I live in fear of my boss telling me that I'm not cut out for writing."

Oh dear. You have some nasty critical voices living in your head. (Actually we all have 'em.) Tell these guys to just give you a break while you just get on with the job in hand. Enjoy your writing for it's own sake and dump the guilt. If you read plenty and write plenty, your own voice will emerge.

Lydian - good for you. Enjoy a guiltless reading break.

Chet said...

Barbara Burford, a Black woman writer from England, was once asked why she went into writing. She replied that it was because she couldn't find anything she liked to read, so she decided to write for herself.

David Yoong said...

oh yes, i so do agree with you :) we must always read to develop a broad perspective of issues. however, i would stop short from using the words: "good" and "bad", because these 2 words are rather 'relative', and they express opinions. :)

bibliobibuli said...

Chet- I think that's a very good reason to write.

Dahvid - Yes 'good' and 'bad' are subjective ... perhaps we should just say, you need to read stuff of all sorts. (Although pretty soon you will be deciding for yourself what's you consider good and bad reads - because you will develop critical awareness.)

Anonymous said...

I'm ashamed to admit I haven't sat down with a novel for a few years! I really need to get back into the reading groove. I used to love reading. And I agree with you. Reading is not just a way to improve one's writing - it is also a means by which one educates oneself and is able to broaden one's worldview.
And now I must find myself a book to devour... ;-)

Reta said...

someone needs to brainwash me with those words.. everyday!!

bibliobibuli said...

safiyyah, cyber-red - glad I am that consciences are getting stung!!! ;-D

Syaliza Abdul Rahman said...

you are what you read.

wow! that hit me like a ton of bricks. never saw it that way but it made alot of sense.

i love reading but i haven't been reading anything enjoyable for my soul for the last 3 years until now. 2008 seems like a new start of sorts.

thank you :o)

bibliobibuli said...

glad this post touched you and am glad you're starting to read again.