I recently saw a blog urging writers to plow through 100 books a year to make themselves better writers. 100 seems to be some kind of current yardstick, though I don’t know why.
I think that’s another sad example of how numbers-crazy we’ve become as writers. Reading widely is good advice for writers of all kinds. But why should the amount of books you read in a year actually matter as opposed to what you read and what you learn from those books. Isn’t how they they inspire you what really counts?
Take a unique book like Rebecca West’s astonishing Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. It’s a record of the author’s travels through the Balkans before World War II. The book is part travelogue, part history, part cultural portrait, and reads throughout with the color and drama of a novel. It’s 1200 pages long and might take you weeks or more to read, but you can learn a lot from every aspect of it, including West’s gorgeous prose style.
I read it one summer while touring Italy and France and felt as if I I’d died and gone to literary heaven. I didn’t finish it on my month-long trip because I was also enjoying sightseeing (big surprise!) and because the book was so luscious it was like a ballotin of Neuhaus chocolates. Something to be savored, not devoured. I read many passages more than once, sometimes read them aloud just to enjoy their sound in the Tuscan or Parisian air. That summer, I read almost nothing else.
What if you wanted to spend a whole year just reading and re-reading all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books so as to immerse yourself in his style and vision? What would be wrong with that? Wouldn’t you learn an enormous amount as a writer? Maybe more than if you just randomly picked 100 books? I wager the blog author might call you lazy, though, because she recommends a blitzkrieg. Seriously. Reading as battle, bombing, conquest, and devastation. What kind of attitude is that?
Everything’s become a frantic contest now, which makes us all potential losers. A writing career is hard enough as it it, and we’re already under assault by the word count fanatics–as I recently blogged at The Huffington Post.
When does it stop? When the hell does it stop?