Monday, June 25, 2012

To Read or Not to Read

On Robin McKinley’s totally awesome blog, she has a rotating cycle of quotes from famous people in the top corner of the page.  One of these contains a witticism about reading and writing – and of course I can’t find the exact quote, because the internet is perverse. 

Anyway, there is a moral to this story.  The elusive quote declares that a person can certainly be a writer or a reader, but not both, because both are full-time occupations. 

This shelf, for example: the owl keeps the books company
This is true in some ways.  Because I teach and write, spare time for reading is hard to come by.  I teach a literature class, so I read for that, of course.  Otherwise for nine months out of the year, I put books on the shelf and merely stare at them longingly as I pass by.  I do this so that I can keep up with my writing, rather than get absorbed in someone else’s.

It’s a sad thing, though.  I love to read.  I was one of those children who can get a whole stack of books from the library (and not picture books for preschoolers, either, but real books with a hundred or more pages) and read every one of them by the end of the same day.  It was kind of like an addiction, actually.  The sensation of my eyes traveling down the page was downright pleasurable – and of course I loved the stories too. 

Now, let me make a distinction about the kind of reading I’m talking about.  I don’t mean ‘work’ reading, that you do in order to maintain your GPA, or for your job.  I mean the honest-to-goodness, curling-up-in-a-comfy-chair, drinking-tea, staying-up-to-all-hours style of reading.  The sort of reading where the book calls to you and you can hardly put it down, even for showers, so you just take it with you inside the shower. 

Anyway, after I grew out of being a book-devouring child, I went to college, and had reading for classes.  This was so time-consuming that pleasure reading got pushed further and further down my list of priorities.  For example, I was once assigned Kant’s Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, a hundred pages of Moby Dick, and three dialogues of Plato, all to be read in about three days.  My college believed in reading, but it wasn’t exactly fun (except for Moby Dick, which I loved).  Then came teaching, which I’ve been doing for quite a while now, and again, I read for work, but not for myself. 

I like FAT books!
During the summers, though, I always try to catch up.  This summer I’m working through a book lent to me by someone who wanted my opinion on it, and then I want to read The Hunger Games Trilogy, and I was thinking about attacking The Tale of Genji as part of my attempt to expand my exposure to world literature.  I feel excited just thinking about those lovely words waiting for me.

Why am I saying all this, though?  Well, because it’s easy to get into the mindset where we tell ourselves, “If I’m not writing, I’m wasting my time.”  So after coming home from a long day of work, we decide not to read, because we should be writing, but then, because we don’t have the energy to write after a full day, we don’t stick to our decision.  The result: guilt.

I think a writer has to resign him- or herself to the reality that it’s simply impossible to force writing in every free moment – sometimes it’s not even possible to force oneself to do it every day.  And that is okay. 

If a writer is having writer’s block, or is tired, or depressed, or busy, etc., etc., then getting to work on the latest novel may not actually be the best idea.  Sometimes, for example, if I am really upset about something, I decide to try to write anyway.  Then because I’m distracted and blue, I can hardly concentrate on the words I’m typing, progress is slow, and frustration is thrown in on top of my other negative emotions. 

Each book is a world of its own!
It’s far healthier at such times, I’ve discovered, to read.  At least for me, reading is so engrossing that it draws me out of myself.  I stop thinking about whatever was on my mind as I follow the twists of the plot and revel in meeting new characters.  Best of all, when I finish reading a chapter or two (or six), I find that my mind is refreshed.  Through contact with another writer’s style and ideas, my own style and ideas are awakened and ready to be used.  Just yesterday, in fact, I spent the evening reading and then, thanks to the expansive effect on my mind, I was able to write a poem.

The reason I bring this up, therefore, is to encourage anyone dealing with work and art simultaneously not to hesitate to throw in a bit of some third pastime.  In moments of strain when life and writing are at odds and I feel like I can do neither, it’s a restful escape to have some other occupation that actually restores my ability to balance the primary ones. 

We all have to get out of ourselves occasionally.  What better way is there than to plunge our minds into an activity which sends us back, revived for our daily lives.  


  1. I did enjoy your poem. Didn't want to follow the hoops to post a comment I'll leave my comment here...
    '...those grasses nurtured to become the grains of our bread, feeding both body and soul' - JP

    It seems it is difficult to be both a reader and a writer. As I write more I read less. But I am also reading more things that are not bound in books, just caught in the web of the 'internet'.

    1. thank you for commenting on my poem and my post! I feel spoiled and grateful. I also love your quote that you left.

      I share your experience of finding that more writing means less reading, though I am also learning that sometimes I need to take a break from writing, so that I can read. The content of often beautiful internet blogs - like your own, in fact - has become an interesting source of reading material for me, too.

  2. what an interesting post. It brings to mind a book I recently began reading - The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. I'm only half way through it though because I've also begun reading at least three other books. To the neglect of my writing, but Pressfield has helped me immensely in that endeavor. I do most of my writing on the computer, and in summertime I do less of that because I'm outdoors in the garden and flower beds. Reading, writing, taking photos, there simply is not enough hours in the day. Thanks for stopping by my blog and saying hello, I appreciate that. You have a lovely blog here, and I'm happy I stopped by because I haven't been setting aside much time for visiting blogs lately. Yours was a pleasant diversion. Happy week to you.

    1. Reading four books at once sounds familiar, I must admit.

      It's my turn to thank you, though. I really enjoyed looking through your photographs. I'm a newcomer to the blog world, so I've been having fun discovering new blogs, like yours. I think that even though there aren't enough hours in a day, for sure, still any creative thing we do (even blog reading!) really keeps alive our artistic spirit. I'm glad you take photographs and post them, because they are refreshing and inspiring to look at.

  3. Reading is a great pleasure and in order to write well we need to read - finding time, I agree, is the great problem!

    1. I agree heartily that we need to read in order to write. I always credit my voracious appetite for new books when I was little with my passion for writing once I grew up.

      Thank you so much for stopping by to comment!