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On Reading (and Occasionally Not Finishing) Books

I am currently in a compressed binge of narrative ingestion. When I am writing, books begin to pile up, either physically teetering on my desk, scribbled on a mental post-it, or in an Amazon shopping cart/wish list. Reading is dangerous while writing. But reading is an absolutely essential part of being a writer. And so the binge system develops. I meet a deadline and collapse into the words and stories of others. When I am once again refreshed and itchy with my own ideas, I reemerge feeling like a hen backed up with eggs.

Now, I know that some (most?) writers work differently than I do. They space out a project sanely and allot hours of every day toward reading and hours of every day toward writing. They are better men (and women) than I. Eventually, I hope to be more like them. For now, I have to keep the two activities separate. They don’t get along, two otherwise terrific experiences mutually tainting each other.

In college, I once went on a Shakespeare frenzy (for pleasure). At the same time, I was supposed to be writing some philosophy paper or other. My prose became as impossibly long-winded and wordy as it has ever been–like the work of some Elizabethan wannabe unable to master current trends. Long stretches of unintentional meter didn’t help.

I am a story pig, and that is my problem. When gripped, I remain gripped. If a book doesn’t grip, I am not likely to continue reading (unless there is some other pressing reason). This goes for history as well as lit. If a story is being told, and I am enjoying myself, then I begin to sprint for the end. But the same is true for my writing. Once my narrative is laid out, my characters are sketched, and I’m excited, then my writing exists in a constant state of acceleration until I plow through a week or two of wee hours and a couple all-nighters, hit the final pages with relief and joy, and slump onto my keyboard.

Sidenote: There’s a bit of a tradition in our house. When I have finished a first draft (to date, always in the mellow glow of the predawn), then I wake my wife (to whom I have been reading the draft all along), and I read her the final chapters. She applauds, occasionally cries, and then I flop onto the loyal Tempur-pedic. The next day, I begin to ease into reading.

The reading is essential work. A mill needs grist. A well needs water.  Throughout the reading process, I’ll take voluntary and involuntary breaks, usually with my mind whirring and my leg bouncing as I grind away at what I’ve read, racing ahead to some application for my next draft, or filing away a lesson, a fact, a setting, a technique for the next project.

I read for the same reason that I eat. I love it. I take pleasure in it (as I do in eating), but it is never simple entertainment. It is sustenance (in many ways and on many levels). When I have gone without stories and words for too long, I begin to fade away, losing my spark, my drive, my own need to shape and tell. The hen ceases to lay.

And this brings me to my final point for this rambling blog post. When you have gained all that you can from a book (or film), set it down and move on. Life is short. My binge windows are brief and there are thousands of books I would like to get to and never will. Even something as simple as Law & Order can pump the juices. But the instant I know what happened and how the characters will respond, I am officially over it. Years ago, and thanks to my wife’s prodding, I finally decided that I should read Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead. I sludged through hundreds of pages of her repressed issues and found them interesting in many ways. And then she snapped. Her characters became puppets, inanimate, inhuman voodoo dolls existing only for her wrath or benediction. I quit 50 pages from the end, literally threw it across the room, picked up something else, and I am confident that I will never return to it. I wanted (and needed) no more.

Enough. I have told you how it is for me. Perhaps some day I will tell you my plans for that inevitable time when I cease to be a sprinter. But for now, I am already knee-deep in a new (and large) project, and the books are still piled high on my desk.


  1. at
    February 14, 2009 at 8:22 pm

    That was worth it.

    Thank you.

    I am however an almost compulsive finisher. Almost. I love that sprint through the final pages, laughing out loud as things are sorted, the author’s ideas are clarified, the comeuppance comes.

    Good to know that others need reading like they need eating. I think many out there must be starving without knowing it. Met a lady yesterday who claimed she didn’t finish a book a year. Thin.

  2. at
    John R. Ahern
    February 15, 2009 at 3:04 pm

    I’m not sure about the sudden set-down and move-on of books. I mean – and not to gloat or anything, cough, cough – if I had done that with my (shiny) advanced reader’s copy of Dandelion Fire, I just wouldn’t have gotten it, like I didn’t when I read it through the first time. It’s like expecting you can pick up all those little references in That Hideous Strength the first time through. No way. Or, now that we’re on the topic, I could just cite the beginning of An Experiment in Literary Criticism where he talks about reading books several times through. Isn’t Lewis practically infallible or something?

  3. at
    February 16, 2009 at 3:53 pm

    Dearest John Ahern,

    Perhaps I’ve been unclear (though I’d prefer to say that you’ve misunderstood). When you have gained all that you can from a book, that is when you set it down and move on. I still haven’t gained all that I can from That Hideous Strength, and I’ve read it at least a dozen times. No doubt, I’ll read it a dozen times more. The best books aren’t depleted on the first read. In fact, the best books aren’t ever depleted. But there are plenty of books that run dry before that first read has even been completed.

    Like Mandi, I used to be a compulsive finisher. The first time I ever stayed up all night, I did so reading a terrible bit of historical fiction. By the time I was half way through, I loathed it. I wanted to put it behind me, and the only way I knew how was to reach the end.

    Now, because of the huge number of books there are to taste and sample and the relative shortness of life, I’ve had to develop an itchier trigger finger. Cheers.


  4. at
    s.d. smith
    February 19, 2009 at 10:57 pm

    I started to read the whole post, but just couldn’t finish it.

  5. at
    s.d. smith
    February 19, 2009 at 11:01 pm

    Kidding. I read it all, and agree. Life is short and I read too slow to be bogged down forever by a book that stinks.

    I only hope my readers are unlike me. I think.

  6. at
    February 21, 2009 at 1:59 pm

    Not reading while writing…kinda like a chef who does not eat while cooking. He has to sample his own dish, but it is not wise for him to be consuming his Olive Garden take-out while he prepares his chick parm. =)

  7. at
    Laura Whear
    February 24, 2009 at 4:20 pm

    My book reading usually goes in spurts. I won’t read for a while, then I’ll read a whole pile in sequence. Does knitting count for something in between binges?

  8. at
    Lindsey Doolan
    March 10, 2009 at 12:43 pm

    So how do you tell the difference between your own laziness and a poor book? I would never have read The Space Trilogy if I hadn’t had to look you in the eye and say “current,” but obviously those books are gold mines. I still need to re-read them. But how do you know if it’s you or the author that has the problem?

  9. at
    March 31, 2009 at 4:18 pm

    Lindsey D:

    Sorry for letting this question hang so long. The hope is that we can know ourselves well enough to realize when a reaction against a book is caused by our own issues. The beauty of schooling is that we are paying other people (hopefully experts) to make those calls for us. We are given the training wheels of instructors before we race off to make our own critical decisions. Cheers.


  10. at
    Bev Dow
    June 22, 2009 at 7:33 pm

    Your approach to writing is very similar to my mother’s approach to her painting. For years I have watched her plot and plan several paintings, and then go on a days long painting marathon. She’ll mention that she needs to put something away in her studio at 10 p.m. and at 2 a.m. my father will find her lost in her current painting. Then, when several paintings are completed, she starts going through her art journals, soaking up the techniques of other artists, evaluating their ideas and ripping out articles for future reference. And, as at the current moment, when she is physically unable to paint, something of her spirit seems to be lost.

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