Some kinds of books just come naturally to us. For example, I don’t have to remind myself to read speculative/adventure fiction: it comes instinctively. N.D. Wilson, G.K. Chesterton, Neil Gaiman – I simply will read them, given I have time to read anything at all.
My dietary equivalents are red meat and cheese: they simply will find their way into my hand and then my stomach.
But man was not meant to live on beef alone; if I am to age gracefully and well, I need a balanced diet.
And if I am to develop gracefully and well as a writer (and possibly as a human being), I need a balanced reading diet too. All the more so as I am still a “developing” writer (even though I’ve used the term, “aspiring writer” sounds tiresome) rather than a published-and-paid one.
We will most likely write the kinds of things we most love to read; and that’s okay. But I really do think that our writing – not just our prose styling, but even our content and our emotional impact – will be strengthened by reading more than the genre in which we want to be published. (In case I’ve inadvertently stolen this idea, it may have come from Stephen King, Orson Scott Card, John Gardner, or Doug Wilson).
To that end, here’s my idea of a balanced reading diet and what each “reading group” has for nourishment:
All writers should be reading theological or at least philosophical works. Every human being is a philosopher/theologian; every creative work, every expression of beauty, has something to say about theological and philosophical questions:
- Why are we here? A character’s goal shows what they, at least, think about the purpose of life.
- What is the essential nature of human beings? Our heroes and villains display our views of what humans can/ought/should be.
- What is true and good? We order our lives around what is real vs. what isn’t, what is worth pursuing vs. what isn’t. Our characters are no different, whether they’re written by Shakespeare or Samuel Beckett or James Patterson.
- Is there a God/justice/ultimate truth? Our stories show our belief about the moral pattern/order of the world.
Because of this, our writing will be the richer if we actively deepen our understanding of God and the nature of the world. Our stories don’t have to be allegories or one-dimensional illustrations of our pet philosophical views; but a strong backbone of meaning will enrich our writing and connect to readers on a deeper level. Plus, reading well in these fields will help us ensure any philosophical or theological perspectives we reach will be more coherent and well-thought-out than, say, Objectivism.
The next thing we should have in our reading diet is actual stories from the actual world. This has several advantages. First, real people and events are often more startling and more interesting than made-up ones (honestly, who could have invented Nikola Tesla before we had Tesla himself as a pattern?).
Second, exposing ourselves to actual people, cultures, and events will make our writing resonate more as truth and less like bad Tolkien – who, incidentally, conceived The Lord of the Rings while reading things other than fantasy.
History and biography will help us write stories/essays/articles that savor of reality, because our imagination is being steeped in reality.
- Educational reading
This is kind of a large umbrella for reading that teaches us facts/concepts/skills. Books on the craft of writing. Chemistry textbooks. Malcolm Gladwell.
Educational reading will bring us insights and perspectives we didn’t have before. From a fiction-writer’s perspective, it can lend credibility when we write about those things; these facts might also spark ideas for stories (I know Yoon Ha-Lee’s work owes a lot to her studies in physics, and is richer for it).
From a stylistic perspective, a good educational book can also teach us about writing with clarity and simplicity.
When it’s done well, poetry displays language at its richest. Great poets communicate images and ideas in succinct, vivid language that surprises and enlightens us. It captures ideas in novel and memorable ways.
Done badly, “poetic” language sets the teeth on edge. But when it’s done well, it has so much to teach the writer.
- Fiction that challenges you
This applies especially to fiction writers, but we should always be reading fiction that stretches us. I’m not talking about terrible fiction; no need to waste our time. And I’m not talking either about the kind of work that only a grad student could love (I’m still not persuaded that Ulysses is worth reading).
But not all great fiction is easily accessible fiction.
We ought to be reading fiction that stretches our vocabulary, that asks us to invest attention and time. That introduces us to cultures more alien than Tatooine (Dostoevsky, Keri Hulme); that leads us to explore language and the human condition rather than the tombs of King Tut.
This may not lead us to write this kind of work; but it will enrich our imaginations and our understanding of the world, which can only be good.
- Fiction that grips you
And finally, let us not forget fiction that grips you. I put this one last because it’s my habitual-read, but I think it’s healthy to keep reading fiction that sucks us in and sails us along by car chase, interstellar yacht, or hippogriff.
Is there terrible commercial fiction? Absolutely. Hacks are most likely to be forgiven in this field.
But breathless fiction has its own craft to learn and its own potential for greatness.