Read Everything


Photo is of the public library in Kansas City, Missouri. Photo was taken by Jonathan Moreau.

I read between 150 and 200 books per year. I’ve actually read over 100 already this year, but this is an unusual year for me. It is a matter of how a person spends his or her leisure time – reading or watching TV. Although there are a few TV shows that I watch and love, I usually watch those after they have come out on DVD. Most of my spare time is spent writing or reading.

Writers need to read in order to improve their writing. I can always tell which students read a lot when I’m grading their essays. They have a better grasp of grammar and how to structure their essays. William Faulkner said, “Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.” A writer can learn from other writers, even by seeing what they do wrong.

Even if you have no intentions of becoming a writer, read everything you can. Read books on subjects that interest you. Read books on places you have never visited. Read books about your hometown and learn something you never knew about the place where you grew up. Movies and documentaries can only expand your world so far, but reading can stretch out your awareness until it encompasses the entire world.

A lot of people get attached to a certain genre and read only books from that genre. Women who like romance novels tend to devour them. There is no sin in reading what you like, but consider adding in something a little different as well. Try out the occasional mystery. If you like romance, you can find a lot of mysteries that have a satisfying amount of romance in them as well. Reading a well-written science fiction book can be fascinating, even if that isn’t your sort of genre. My oldest son loves fantasy, but he recently read Frank Herbert’s Dune. I had read the book over twenty years ago, and seldom read science fiction, but I still remembered the book vividly. We’ve had many interesting conversations about Dune.

Even if you aren’t a fantasy fan, you would probably like Terry Pratchett’s wonderful Discworld series. Many of the books are mysteries. Pratchett included an assortment of references to well-known works of literature, sure to please any English major, but his series is so accessible that even those who have never read any Shakespeare would enjoy them. Pratchett’s series is set in a world that is based on the Victorian era. People travel by horse and carriage, and eventually steam engines are discovered and railroads are created.

For those who crave a more modern world combined with fantasy, The Dresden Files should satisfy that craving. Jim Butcher’s urban fantasy series The Dresden Files is liberally sprinkled with references to movies and TV shows that most of us are familiar with, even a person who doesn’t watch a lot of TV like me. Not every writer can sprinkle Star Wars quotes in his books and have it fit into the personality of his characters, but Butcher does it with ease. Anyone who was ever a kid who ran home after school to watch reruns of the original Star Trek will adore the scene in his novel Ghost Story where Molly is on the bridge of the Enterprise. Even Molly’s nickname, “Grasshopper,” is a nod to Kung Fu, a TV series that featured the late David Carradine.

If you want to be a writer, you need to be a reader. Read a lot. Yes, you have to write your own story. But knowing what others are writing, how they are using language, how they are putting together their plots, is an invaluable education. I have never known a great writer who didn’t read a large amount of books every year. Stephen King said, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” He’s right. Just as reading improved my students’ writing, reading will improve yours as well.

I read because I truly enjoy it. It is my number one favorite leisure activity. I’m always reading a book, usually around five at the same time. At night I pick up my stack, sit them on the round, battered, antique table I use as my nightstand, and read about fifty pages in one before I switch off to another. When I read, I am somewhere else, lost in that world. I haunt my local library. I tend to go to bookstores alone because I go into a trance and just wander the aisles for around two hours, finding new books to purchase. I am terrible company when I go to bookstores, and I don’t want to be hurried when I’m in my sanctum sanctorum.

Read everything. Fiction and nonfiction, don’t be picky. Read both. Visit India and learn about British Colonialism in E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India. Learn about bootleggers by reading Kansas Bootleggers or The Wettest County in the World. Discover the pioneer days in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books. Tour other planets in Dune. Hang out with the wizard Harry Dresden in Chicago in Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files. The whole universe is out there waiting for you in the pages of a book.