Do you read The Believer? It’s a magazine from the McSweeneys outfit in California, and it’s very smart. I used to subscribe but found I never had time to read (much like The New Yorker and the NYRB that arrive steadily and sit in tumbling dusty stacks waiting for me….). Anyway, they put some material online for free, including a fantastic series with writers, called “How Writers Read.” So I thought I’d steal their questions and give you my own answers, and hope to stimulate — and perhaps learn — yours!
1) We’ve all had “writer’s block,” but do you ever get reader’s block? If so, do you “downgrade” and read something “easy” or just not read at all?
I absolutely do get reader’s block, for a couple of reasons. Most often I get it when I’ve read something so singular and perfect that nothing else will possibly do. I got it after I read Moby Dick for the first time. What else could measure up? What else could stand near it for the beauty of language, for the magnitude of the themes, for the sheer wonder of it? Nothing. I tried this I tried that, and finally I just had to wait it out. The other time I get reader’s block is when I get pretty severely depressed, but then I can’t do anything, it’s not just about reading. I hospitalized myself the last time I was suicidally depressed, and I would open books and stare at the words, but couldn’t care about the sentences. I tried everything, all my favorites, and just couldn’t care enough to read.
But for both of those sources, the answer is the same. I have found that if I read Vonnegut or Anne Lamott, I can usually find my way back to reading. Vonnegut is best for the first version, and Lamott is best for the second, but somehow those two writers can lead me back.
2) What genre do you read most—fiction, nonfiction, poetry? Do you mostly read in the genre that you write in? How is your reading experience different when reading outside your genre?
For the last 12 years, since I finished graduate school, I read almost exclusively literary fiction and very good poetry. A nonfiction title slips in if it’s on one of my pet themes (Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande, is a good example). Otherwise I just do not read other genres. When I was younger, I read literary fiction exclusively until one day I kind of had enough and only wanted to read nonfiction. So I did that for several years, pretty exclusively. Then in graduate school I read mostly in my discipline, but definitely found time to read good novels. And Shakespeare, lots of Shakespeare. When I was (avoiding) writing my qualifying paper, I memorized the first act of Hamlet. Many grad students clean their apartments to avoid writing, but I had kids to do that for me. 🙂 (I kid.)
3) Where and when do you usually read? In bed? On the train?
In New York, I had 45 minute subway commutes in the morning and evening and I got a lot of reading done then. Now, sitting at home all day without a commute, and reading for work, my reading time comes at night in bed. Often in the middle of the night, on my Kindle. Not the most interesting question….
4) Do you ever read for “guilty pleasure”?
NO! I don’t even get that idea. Although sometimes the act of reading is the guilty pleasure, when I ‘should’ be doing something else. But reading something that would be considered a ‘guilty pleasure’ — something others might think is junk? I guess that’s the idea? Like Peeps are my guilty pleasure? No. First, my reading time is too insufficient already and my TBR list is way too long to spend any time reading junk; second, I read a lot of junk for work; and third, I just don’t like those genres. It’s nothing against them, I just don’t like them. Just as I don’t like chocolate covered cherries, but there’s nothing wrong with them.
5) Do you read YA? Do you read genre fiction?
Surprisingly (to me), some of the best books I’ve read in the last few years were YA! The Book Thief, for instance, and that leaves me so confused about what it means to be a YA book. That one was about death in Germany during the Holocaust, for heaven’s sake. But I guess the main characters were teenagers, so that’s why it has the designation. I have nothing inherent against genre fiction — sci fi, detective novels/mysteries, romance, horror — but they just aren’t for me. Unless they are, unless one does something very different, very big. I never read vampire novels, never wanted to, until a client wrote an amazing one and that knocked my socks off.
6) Do you gravitate toward shorter books or longer books?
Longer, definitely, but not longer than they need to be. And not long just to be long. I can’t turn off my editor’s mind, so when books are longer than they need to be, it distracts me and I wonder why the editor didn’t take care of that. But the ones I have loved most tended to be long, and a short book will make me raise an eyebrow and wonder about it.
7) When you finish a book, how long do you wait before you start another one?
This is actually the question that caught my attention more than any of the others. Immediately! When I’m at the ~2/3rd mark in a book I’m starting to figure out which book will be next. Usually when I read the last word I go to the home page of my kindle and just open the next book. The exception is one of those far-too-rare books that makes me unable to read anything else. But even with a book I adore, I go immediately to the next. I just assumed all readers were like this.
8) Do you read multiple books at once?
Kind of, kind of not. And it depends on the power of the one I’m primarily reading. I have several books ‘going,’ but the ones that are ‘going’ hit a slump for one reason or another and I think I want to finish them so I keep them in the ‘currently reading’ pile. But I really just read one until it’s done, otherwise.
9) Do you read with a pencil, i.e., do you take notes, either in the margins or elsewhere? Does it matter whether you’re reading with intent to review?
If I had time to read during waking hours, I would be reading with a pen in my hand. Since I read in the middle of the night, on my kindle, all my highlights and notes are done with those tools. But I do leave a lot of notes in my kindle books, in addition to the highlights, and since Amazon collects them, I periodically open that web page and read my notes, or copy them and print them out. When I have an opportunity to read a ‘real’ book in the daytime, I keep my beautiful moleskine next to me, and read with a pen in my hand. That’s the best reading, as far as I’m concerned. I write marginalia, and for longer thoughts and questions I put those in my moleskine. I’m always reading with intent to review, but in my own small potatoes way, on my blog or in Goodreads.
And this is my own question, stimulated by a passing comment on this blog that produced answers from others that surprised me. 10) Why do you read?
I read to have my soul enlarged. That’s the clunkiest way to say it, and I don’t know exactly what I mean by soul, and that sounds hokey, but I think it communicates what I mean. I read to be moved and enlarged, to be immersed in a version or vision or experience of life that takes me beyond my chair and makes me understand something, feel something, learn something about life or others or myself. I wouldn’t say I read for ‘fun.’ I don’t read to escape, although it sounds like that’s what I’m saying. I read for beautiful language, I read for language that articulates something I’d never found a way to articulate (or that I didn’t realize I knew/felt until it was articulated for me). I read to have my own inner monologue STOPPED.
Are you different from me on any of these questions?