On reading

A friend recently asked me why I read books. It’s a deceptively simple question, and my knee-jerk response was equally simple: to learn about the world around me. But I think the real reasons I read books are much deeper than that. I read to learn about the world around me, yes, but also about worlds that came before me, worlds I will never know, worlds within me, and worlds that are yet to be.

I have been keeping diligent track of the books I’ve read ever since I started grad school ten years ago. When I started my MFA program, I wasn’t a lover of reading. I loved books, but I thought I was too antsy to waste time – especially a beautiful day – reading. One of the most important things I learned in my program was to choose books I actually wanted to read (and not just books assigned to me in school or by some online TBR list) and to embrace my reading list, and, conversely, to refuse to read books I didn’t like or want to read. “Books,” Virginia Woolf wrote in her own last book, “are the mirror of the soul.” This principle of reading only what I wanted to perhaps singlehandedly changed the way I interacted with books. I came to love Virginia Woolf, for example, not because I felt I was supposed to, but because her mysterious prose burrowed its way into my heart and whispered to me something about myself I had only begun to understand. Reading her made me feel smarter, but in a heart-centered way.

The other thing that changed was that I was stuck in a laughably long commute to work. The upside of taking the train two hours each way, every day, was that I had plenty of time to read, and reading made the hours bearable, even enjoyable, because I was traveling in both space and time, both physically and mentally. I plowed through books I’d always intended to read or books I found at the library that looked interesting. When I wanted to feel particularly productive, I packed two books of poetry in my backpack and polished them both off during my commute. In that way, I also read things I’d previously been afraid to read and my horizons expanded. I found I liked the rhythm of each poet’s words as well as the satisfaction of slipping through a whole book in one sitting. Poetry made more sense to me that way, and in the same way, that season of my life made more sense to me, too. As long as I was commuting that way for that job, I made the most of it.

Before I studied writing, I studied history, so I spent a lot of time reading to learn about the past. I also spent a lot of time in museums, where the stories of the past are often conveyed in ways that are more accessible than historical monographs. But I also have become convinced that historical fiction is an effective purveyor of the past. Characters that inspire empathy and narrative structures that allow for the exploration of cause and effect – however murky, confusing or unknown that cause or effect and effect might be – can help readers understand the people and places that have shaped the world as it is. Now I am just as likely to pick up a book of fiction when I want to learn something about an era of history.

It may have taken me a long time to fall in love with reading but my very first love was writing. Of course, if you want to be a good writer, you need to be a good reader, in part to be a good literary citizen and to understand the market, but mostly to understand where your own words fit in the literary conversation. Joan Didion wrote, “I write to figure out what I’m thinking,” and Flannery O’Connor wrote, “I write to discover what I know.” But it’s Toni Morrison’s take (on reading, history, race relations, basically everything in the world) that resonates with me most: “If you find a book you really want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” Perhaps that’s really why I read: because I write and want to keep writing, because I want my own words to find their place in the world alongside the writers I admire.

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