Why Reading and Writing are Inseparable

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.

Photo: Some rights reserved by spisharam.

28 Replies to “Why Reading and Writing are Inseparable”

  1. This post was awesome, and can be applied directly to my reading habits. I’m working hard to become a more conscious reader, and in so doing, a better writer. Congrats on the novels, I’ll have to look them up.

  2. I’m working on a few book projects right now. I have two book drafts languishing on my hard-drive while I put-off editing them and just started a new story a few days ago (it’s easier to start than to finish, in my experience). I have a book idea and loose outline for a Barcelona for Idiots book, but for now it’s just one of my blogs, where I write about things Barcelona-related.

    1. Hey, you’re like me! I love starting, hate finishing. Finishing involves editing, evaluating my work and deleting the parts that don’t work. I hate that. Much prefer the thrill of a new project, new ideas pouring onto the page. By the time I’m at the end, I’m already done in my mind and moving on to the next thing, and have to force myself to the finish line.

      I think maybe, to return to the theme of the post, my reading sometimes inspired me to keep going. It gave me a model of a finished product that I could aim for. (And, in some cases, it got me thinking “If this can get published, surely my book can!”)

      Anyway, thanks for commenting on my post, Chris, and I hope you finish off those book drafts one day!

  3. great post. I have never written a book, but I do know that the more I read, the better my writing is. I find if I’m losing my mojo, reading some books definitely helps.

    1. Hey Corinne, thanks for commenting! I love the way you put it – mojo is just the right word (if I can shake the image of Austin Powers out of my head!). I do lose it sometimes. Often, in fact. For example, this week, Monday and Tuesday went well, and then yesterday I just couldn’t get going. In the evening I read some poetry by Kamau Brathwaite, and it got me going again. Today was better.

      Sometimes I even find that thinking about books or being close to them helps – for example, going to a bookshop or library and being surrounded by all those books, breathing in the musty smell of them. Instantly makes me want to write. Does that work for you? Or am I alone here? I admit, I’m a bit of a book nerd 🙂

  4. When I first read this post I was floored by how similar your reading experience was to mine. I didn’t start until about 2010, but, like, you I made a New Year’s Resolution to write something about what I read. With my nook I was just consuming too fast.

    This site started as that resolution. It has changed quite a bit since the inception, but the idea is still there. Think about reading and eventually, hopefully write something about it.

    I’m glad to see someone else recognize the potential problem. I love your approach in the post and I can’t thank you enough for sharing it with us.

    1. Hi Brandon,

      Wow, “consuming” is just the right word to use for it. In fact I wish I’d used it in my post 🙂 It captures the thoughtless, passive nature of what I was doing.

      My site’s changed too – I do a lot of other stuff other than book reviews, such as writing about writing, connecting with the readers of my work, and, frankly, trying to raise my profile as an author and sell more books. But the core of it is still a love of reading, and I think most of my best posts are book reviews.

      I’m curious about whether you or anyone else reading this has tried Goodreads or similar sites. Would love to hear about your experiences.

      Anyway, thanks very much for hosting me on here. I enjoyed writing the post, and the comments so far have been fantastic. Will keep checking back and respond to any more as they come in…

  5. Reading was always something I enjoyed a lot and from this came a desire to start writing, but as I am a natural procrastinator 🙂 that was done sporadically until it eventually died out. Then I started my blog, more from a desire to have a project that I will constantly have to work on and eventually (hopefully) improve my writing skills.
    I can relate to starting stories and not finishing them, it’s exciting when a fresh idea sparks into a beginning but then I somehow lag behind. And I also think reading a lot helps with the writing process. Sometimes I read passages from books and even if I don’t like the overall story I can’t help but admire the writer for that particular section that I like so much.
    As for the books I’ve read, I certainly don’t remember all of them but even if I can’t recall the story or the characters I remember how that book made me feel.

    1. Hi Delia

      If it helps, my personal belief is that everyone is a natural procrastinator. At our core, beneath all the sophistication and the ideas, we are animals who want instant gratification. That may sound pessimistic, but I actually found it helped me move forward. Instead of beating myself up over my procrastination (which, by the way, lasted for years), I realised that I was just like everyone else, and that I could overcome it if I put specific strategies in place, as other people have done. Anyway, that’s just my view of it. It’s good to know that the blog is helping you to get some writing done, and as I’ve said in the comments on your blog, I like a lot of what you’ve posted and hope to see more.

      You make a good point about the feeling the writing gave you – that’s often more important than the specifics. I do find, though, that there’s even more reward to be had from analysing in more detail. Not the kind of line-by-line analysis that we did in school when we studied Hamlet – that just kills it for me – but just writing down thoughts and reactions to the book. Do you find that helps you, when you write your own book reviews? Have you gained anything for your own writing?

      Thanks for stopping by and sharing your ideas!

      1. I used to hate pausing while reading so I can write things down. It felt too much like homework, but now I find I have to do it, otherwise my ideas run away and it’s difficult to find them again. 🙂 My reviews are purely emotional and yes, writing them helped me in so many ways…sometimes I have no idea how to begin until my fingers hit the keys.

        Your comment about procrastination made me feel so much better, often I give myself a hard time because I haven’t written as much as I would have liked to. I need to slow down on my reading and start writing more.

        1. Me too! I also like to be comfortable when I’m reading (i.e. horizontal!), so didn’t want to have to sit up and write in a formal notebook or journal. But I accustomed myself to writing notes in the margin and dog-earing the page (this was a big step for me – I was brought up in a household where books were treated as sacred objects, not to be defiled). More recently I’ve started using an e-reader sometimes, and the note-making function on there is really easy. Doesn’t feel like homework at all 🙂 Glad the procrastination comment helped – we really are all in it together in my view!

  6. Hello Andrew. Wonderful to stumble across you again here. I used to subscribe to your Blog then left because I had a house-move pending. So now I’ll return to it as I really liked what you had to say about the connection between reading to writing, something I’ve always believed in, only now I’ll keep an exercise book of my observations and feelings. Thank you so much for the inspiration.

    1. Hi Jeanne,

      Yes, I remember you telling me about the big move – hope it went well! Great to come across you again. What are the chances?

      It feels really good to know that the post inspired you to make a change, and I’d like to hear how it turns out. Let me know one of these days how many exercise books you fill, and whether you notice any changes 🙂

  7. I came to book blogging out of academia, so I admit that I was sold on the virtues of writing about books I’d read in the first place. But blogging is a great way for people to find this out for themselves. We can get so much out of reading books if we slow down and think a bit more as we go through them. It’s really worth the trouble to have your world view broadened and enriched. And of course it does help you to remember what you’ve read!

    1. Hi litlove,
      I love your point about slowing down and thinking. That’s one reason I’ve never been very big on all the challenges and readalongs that happen in the book blogging world. They can be great ways to motivate you to read more, but I don’t like to get into the mindset of goals and end-products, like “Oh, I have to read 10 books of Russian literature by next week, otherwise I fail the challenge.” I read at my own pace, think and write blog posts at my own pace. That way I really do get what you so rightly stated as the point, to have my “world view broadened and enriched.” Doesn’t get much better than that!

  8. Great entry.

    This is why I started blogging too. It changed my way of reading and it added an additional dimension, the interaction with others who have another native language.
    When I read in French now, I always wonder at one point or another “how will this be translated into English?” For example, I’m reading Philippe Besson, his prose is very French in the syntax and I wonder how the translator did.

    Likewise, I’m aware that some bloggers who know I’ll be reading their post also think about how I’ll react to it. I’ve had responses to comments I left them such as “When I was reading, I thought the style/language would be difficult for you to read” or once a (*) with an explanation of a specific British notion because the blogger thought I would need it.

    It is fascinating that our readership (it’s a big word, I know, but I don’t know any other one) also influences our reading and our perception.

    1. Hi Emma, thanks for taking it to another level – you’re quite right, how others read us affects how we write about what we’ve read! When I first started blogging I didn’t like the idea of being influenced by my readership, but now I love it. The examples you give show the community that exists in the book blogging world, and that’s a great thing. Plus the comments often give me new ideas about what I’ve read, along with suggestions for what to read next. I can’t imagine what it’s like to blog in another language as you do. Fascinating, though, to hear about you reading in French and thinking about how it will work in English! I like the way you provide excerpts in your posts with the French and English side by side, to let your readers compare for themselves. I always try to read the French first, but then end up cheating and skipping over to the English 😉

  9. Wonderful take on the benefits of reading! Not only does it fill your brain with ideas that allow you to make connections, but it will help you internalize (sometimes without knowing it) what good writing is and what bad writing is. Whenever I run out of ideas or things to say, I usually just have to read some more. (I don’t think musicians would be able to put out albums consistently if they never listened to other music that was out there, either.)

    1. Hi Aaron, glad you liked it! I think you’re right – in this article I concentrated more on consciously analysing what you read, but I agree that often it can happen unconsciously too. I do think that writing about reading helps, though, because it gets you thinking critically as you read. Then, even when you’re not making so much effort, you naturally internalise what good/bad writing is. I think that reading can sometimes be fairly useless, if you’re just in passive consumption mode.

      Excellent analogy about musicians! Immersion in the works of others is critical in any art form. You want to have your own voice, of course, but I think all art is in some respects a response to others. Thanks for the comment – very thought-provoking. Your blog looks interesting too. I hadn’t come across it before, but have subscribed for updates and look forward to reading more from you.

  10. Andrew, thanks for sending me to this blog and to this great guest post. I had a very similar idea in 2009. In preparation for writing a memoir, I made it my goal to read 100 good ones as a way to study the genre. I reviewed about 40 of the ones I read and invited others to guest post. I still find myself reading passively far too often, but blogging has definitely improved my attention to structure and detail.

    1. Hi Shirley
      Thanks for sharing your experience. It’s wonderful to hear about other people going through the same process as me. Forty out of 100 is a good ratio. I know some book bloggers review every book they read, but for me that’s too much. I tried it, but it made me feel under pressure if I got behind and started building up a backlog. Now I review only the books I feel like reviewing, and that’s still plenty. Blogging does improve attention, I think even for books I don’t end up reviewing. Another thing about it is that you end up reading other book blogs, as well as the comments section of your own, and other people’s reactions can offer new insights. You’re right, though – the struggle against passive reading always continues!

  11. Andrew, I am guilty of reading so quickly and so voraciously that I often have to use my hand to cover the words on the bottom half of the page so I don’t jump ahead. I open my throat and chug the story when truly I should take small sips and savor it. I’ve been on a writing tear for a few months, and my reading has lapsed as a result. Thanks for reminding me to get back to it!

    1. Hi Bethany,

      Your comment made me smile! I can just picture you with your hand over the page, trying to hold yourself back 🙂 A voracious reading appetite is good, though.

      I wonder, have you ever tried just tearing through a book as fast as you want, and then going back to the start and rereading a second time more slowly? It strikes me that perhaps that way you could get the best of both worlds, the chugging and the savouring 🙂

  12. Pingback: ketone supplement
  13. Pingback: guildford

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *