This is an essay by Andrew Blackman.
Do you remember every book you read? How long does it take you to forget the details: a year or two? A month or two?
A few years ago I started reading Anna Karenina. I fell in love with Tolstoy’s rich, luscious prose, the detailed descriptions that drew me right into the Oblonskys’ house and made me see the characters as if they were standing in front of me. It was only in about the third or fourth chapter that I began to experience an uncanny sensation of deja vu. The characters seemed strangely familiar, the action predictable. Then, a dog-eared page and a little margin note in my own handwriting, and suddenly I realised the awful truth: I’d read the book already, and completely forgotten about it.
It was symptomatic of my reading habits at that time. In those days I used to read widely but passively, taking in little of what I’d read and remembering even less. I’d speed through books and rush to pick up the next one, and the next one, and the next one, reading my way from nineteenth-century Russia to 1970s Chicago via ancient Greece, all in a weekend. But ask me about one of these books a month or two later, and I’d stutter and stumble and try in vain to recall even the main character’s name.
It was time to make a change. My New Year’s Resolution for 2008 was to start a blog and write a review of every book I read that year. I kept to the first part and failed on the second, but still managed to write a couple of dozen reviews. When I look back at 2008, I can remember reading books like A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro, Identity by Milan Kundera and On Late Style by Edward Said. I can remember what I liked and didn’t like about those books, and if I suffer a lapse I can look back at my blog and remind myself. Ask me about 2007, on the other hand, and it’s just a blank. I might as well not have read anything all year.
There were a couple of interesting side effects to my new habit of writing about reading. The act of writing a review made me think about the books much more carefully, and to figure out what was working and what wasn’t. And even before that, the very prospect of writing a review made me think more actively about the book as I read it. Even if I never got around to writing the review, I got more out of the book because I was reading it more thoughtfully. Reception theorists like Wolfgang Iser have shown that readers play an important role in the creation of a text, filling in the meanings and interpretations that a writer only hints at. By reading more actively, I was finally fulfilling my part of the bargain.
A final side effect: 2008 was the year that, after several years of trying, I finally wrote a novel that a publisher deemed fit to see the light of day. Coincidence? Possibly. But reading more actively and writing about it certainly helped me learn more about books, which I am sure helped to make me a better writer.
Of course, you don’t need to start a blog or even write formal book reviews to see an improvement. All that’s needed is a book and a pen (or screen and keyboard, if you prefer). Your writing could be public or private, formal or informal, structured or scribbled. It could be a few simple notes scribbled in the margin of the book or in a notebook or on a napkin. It could be a letter to the author, sent or unsent. It could be a tweet. You could post on Facebook, or join a social-networking site devoted to books, like Goodreads.com or LibraryThing.com.
You’ll get the benefits of writing no matter what form it takes, or whether you choose to share it with anyone else. An advantage of the public form, however, is that you get to hear what other people thought of the book as well, and to begin a dialogue, and that’s when you can learn more about the book than you ever imagined.
Andrew Blackman is the author of the novel On the Holloway Road (Legend Press, 2009), which won the Luke Bitmead Writer’s Bursary and was shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize. His next novel, A Virtual Love, deals with identity in the age of social networking, and is out in spring 2013. He was born in London, worked as a staff writer for the Wall Street Journal in New York, and is currently living in Barbados while he works out his next move.