On Book Promiscuity

English: Blotter

And that was how I learned if someone offers you a sticker for your tongue, say no. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve always been a reader. I was that kid who would figure out the number of books I was allowed to take out, and then choose books long enough to get me through the week before I could come to the library again. Although, to be fair, it was rarely a week. My parents were quite willing to encourage me in this kind of prolific reading. They didn’t even vet my choices or prohibit certain things*, reasoning that whatever I read was probably still better than getting involved with ‘The Drugs’ that haunted the school of every child of the eighties.**

So I read everything. Mysteries, horror, LGTBQ literary fiction, god-awful drugstore romance, non-fiction about dying in the Arctic…everything. Reading was my favourite thing to do, especially during classes when I couldn’t be bothered to pay attention.***

But when I went to university and generally became a Busy Adult, reading was the first thing to fall off the List of Things To Do. Not because I didn’t still enjoy it, but because it was the easiest thing to cut. Besides, I was focusing on writing, which can eat a lot of time. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t reading as much, because I was focusing on making my own stories. So I let the reading lapse.

And then I was surprised when the writing became harder.

There’s all kinds of reasons, from learning mechanics to finding inspiration and blah blah blah, but here’s how I think of it: I have a Word Tank. That’s where the writing comes from. But it also needs to be filled. To fill it, I need to consume other people’s words: books, articles, hell, even movies and TV and video games. If I go too long without filling up, I’m coasting on fumes and nothing works the way it should. Simple, right?

Every now and then I meet people who want to write but never read. Odd cats, those. One once told me that they didn’t read out of some fear that they’ll copy an idea or a voice or something. In the circumstances, this is like wanting to learn to cook but never eating, because you don’t want to know what other people’s food tastes like. And, having read a few pieces by these people, by the Lord of Undying Fuck, can you ever tell they don’t read.

I’m happy to say that I’ve made more time for reading the last few years—ten books in the last month, woot!—and it’s paid off. The words come easier and flow smoother. You know, most of the time. And I’ve read some great books that I otherwise might have never seen.

So, writers, do yourself a favour: read more. Read everything. Fill the Word Tank. You might be surprised at the dividends.

*Which is how I came to be reading Anais Nin at fifteen. Talk about your eye openers.
**What were these? Does anyone know? All I remember is a lot of vague lectures about the Dangers of The Drugs. And that one cop who showed us what LSD looked like.
***To date, I’m the only person I know who has ever gotten detention for, and here I quote the notification that got sent home to my parents, “reading too much”.

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3 thoughts on “On Book Promiscuity

  1. Yeah I’ve read some stuff from people who adhere to the ‘don’t read or you might plagiarize’ school of thought, and the really ironic thing is that since they’ve never read anything, they have no idea that their brilliantly original story about a sword-swinging hero who goes off to slay a dragon is one of the biggest cliches in the genre.

    I feel you on the reading as a kid thing. I’m pretty sure I learned about sex from some book where people get lost in the Arctic and end up boinking a lot. I never got detention, though. I had a deal with my science teacher that I could read novels in class as long as my grades stayed above 80%.

  2. I used to read in class, too! I completely agree about filling the word tank; it’s so important to be well read, especially in the genre you’re writing in. Otherwise, you’re in danger of being incredibly cliched and unfortunate.

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