Friday, November 22, 2013

The Evolution of a Writer's Reading


Our reading habits evolve over our lifetimes.  As a child, I compulsively read the backs of cereal boxes, even when I already knew what they said.  As an adult in my twenties, I read every work of genre I could get my hands on.  I liked Ursula K. Le Guin's work more than I did the Brak the Barbarian books.  But I read 'em both.

Being published, however, works a radical change on your reading habits.  You grow more selective in what you'll read.  I read fewer and fewer badly-written books.  I remember the terrible sensation I had in my thirties when I received something like twenty books in the mail on one day (I was on the Nebula Jury then; story for another day) and realized that I didn't want to read them all.

The process continued.  In my early fifties, I took a look around my house one day and realized that I never would get around to reading all the books I already owned, though they were all books I had sought out for that very purpose.

Today, I find it hard to read anything I might conceivably have written myself.  What would be the point?

This is one of the shaping processes of a writer's life that nobody ever talks about.  It is a common fate for writers to find themselves reading better and better work, until they exist only on a rarefied diet of Proust and Gaddis.  In his old age, James Branch Cabell wrote an essay explaining that he no longer enjoyed any reading other than certain classic works -- and only certain passages from those.

This is, however, a process to be resisted with all one's might.  Many of our great writers in their old age ceased reading anything new and from there proceeded to cease writing anything new, and so became once-great writers.  It is not a necessary progression.  I know writers who continued reading new and unfamiliar fiction into their own age and kept themselves as literarily spry as Old Father William in consequence.

But to do so, the aging writer has to make an active effort to seek out and find new writers of merit.  It doesn't just happen.

Currently, I am reading with great pleasure Hannu Rajaniemi's The Quantum Thief.

And I almost forgot to mention . . .

My friend Janis Ian's charity auction has begun!  Take a look!  (Am I a bad person for wishing I owned Anne McCaffrey's letter opener?  Click here to see.

And coming soon . . .

Marianne's nanopublishing mini-empire, Dragonstairs Press, is about to offer a new chapbook.  Just in time for Christmas!  I'll let you know when it's up for sale.

Above:  A very small fraction of the books in my bedroom.  There are more, perhaps too many more, in the living room and in my office.  And other rooms as well.  Nabokov's Speak, Memory is a terrific book, incidentally.



Peter Heck said...

Get a reviewing gig, and you'll get lots of stuff by new writers you've never heard of. And you'll have to think about it enough to write something coherent. Some of it will be awful, some of it good, and some of it will make you revise your idea of where the good/awful boundary is. Of course the pay is about 4 cents an hour, and it eats up time you could be writing your own stuff, but it's one answer to the problem of not reading anything new or unfamiliar.

Mark Pontin said...

[1] @ Michael -
Doris Lessing sure kept herself open till the end and I think yous is an astute diagnosis of why. She was always reading -- and then trying -- something different.

[2] @ Peter --
A serious problem with a reviewing gig, of course, is the political one -- the risk that you're going to make enemies, some of whom will nourish themselves on their venom and seek revenge till the end of their days.

I think of poor old Tom Disch, for instance, crowing about Algis Budrys's death -- Because an articulately argued, if slightly unfair review Budrys had given a Disch novel forty frickin-frackin years previously -- just a few weeks before Disch stuck a gin barrel in his own mouth and blew his brain out.

Lars said...

...stuck a gin barrel in his own mouth...

Lovely image. Slow death, though.