Monday, January 10, 2011

Every Book Offers a Lesson

I probably have more books than many small town libraries. I haven’t read them all, but that doesn’t stop me from gathering more. There isn’t a room in my house without its assortment of books. I received a Kindle for Christmas and that provides a new and fascinating means of accumulating (and reading) books.

Admittedly, I’m the exception to the modern American, based on recent dismal statistics on the decline of reading. I like reading. I share Somerset Maugham’s opinion (The Book Bag) “I would sooner read the catalogue of the Army and Navy stores or Bradshaw’s Guide than nothing at all.”

I don’t believe one can be a writer and not be a reader.

Stephen King has said he likes to read. Now I’m not comparing myself to King—just the simple fact we both enjoy reading. But we do share the belief every book has its lesson for the writer. King has also remarked in “On Writing” that often bad books have more to teach than good ones. John Fowles made the same observation.

Fowles was a voracious reader who was guided more by his own curiosity than any authority. He read and absorbed everything—from classics to trash, from psychology to mathematics. And he found value in all he read. In his diary, he noted: “A bad novel of 1857 tells one much more about 1857 than a good one.”

Mark Twain was another constant reader. In his excellent “Mark Twain, A Life,” Ron Powers says “…he read all the time, his choices as eclectic and humanistic as his narratives would prove to be.”

Some (such as Capote) dismiss Jack Kerouac as a “typist” rather than a writer. But examine his journals and you’ll see how serious Kerouac was about reading and writing. On Oct. 17, 1949, he mentions reading Thomas Merton’s confession, the Telemachus chapter of Joyce’s Ulysses in which Stephen Dadalus expounds his theory on Hamlet’s heredity, reading Hamlet “line by line” (and also considering how he would act it), Donne’s Holy Sonnets, and “…the magnificent speeches of Ahab in Moby Dick.”

Madeleine L’Engle recalls her early school years as a “dismal experience” in which she had poor teachers and learned nothing. For solace, she turned to reading and thinking alone. Though she admits having a better educational experience in high school and college, L’Engle believes she wouldn’t have written her books had she been happy in those formative years.

Francis Bacon summed it up succinctly, “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.”


  1. Yes, I think reading and writing go hand in hand. It was only in the last two years of my time at school that I had good teachers, thank goodness for the "Free Library" where I managed to find good books that told me all about the world.

  2. Great post as always John. "All that mankind has done, thought, or been, is lying in the magic preservation, in the pages of a book."

  3. John - Oh, well-put! You are absolutely right that good writers tend to be avid readers. I know, for my part, the more I read, the better I write. I learn from just about every book I read. Sometimes, admittedly, I learn what I don't want to do, but still...

  4. Hi John, I totally agree with you about the connection between readers and writers. I was a voracious reader in school and over most of my lifetime. Every now and then I get into a bit of a funk and can't seem to focus on a book but sometimes that's because I have the need to write. Does this make sense?


  5. Interesting blog, John. In recent years, since my return to fiction writing, I've read a lot of contemporary romances (as a form of current market research). I've learned things from the good ones, but have probably learned more from the bad ones about what NOT to do when I'm writing.

  6. This was a good post on a good subject. In "On Writing" King says if you don't have time to read, you don't have the time or the tools to write.


  7. The last statement by Francis Bacon sums it up. I'd never have considered books in that fashion, but it's so true. You say every book has a lesson, whether the book is good or bad. Sad to say, many books will never reveal their lesson to me, because I either stop or throw it against the wall. I know....don't yell at me. I began a book a few days ago, and on page 18 I realized I had no idea what the book was about. I went back through those pages, but still couldn't make it come to life. I'm sure someone else out there would love it. Nice post--

  8. I agree. It's so important to read and read everything. I don't think a good writer should limit their reading to solely the genre they write.