“I’m a Writer, Not a Reader”

The phrase didn’t originate with me. It’s Umberto Eco in a book I haven’t read (and won’t). Reviewed in The Guardian.

“When people ask whether I’ve read this or that book, I’ve found that a safe answer is, ‘You know, I don’t read, I write.’ That shuts them up.” 

I am in a place where I have to read in order to write. I have to read a lot and some of it is good, interesting, wonderful. I like the subject matter. Reading all this will open a door to a shadow world I’ve long wondered about. 

Once I was a reader. I read voraciously (as do a lot of people with blogs here on WordPress). I think that changed because of two things. One, reading became research. A historical novel is a long research paper, hopefully more interesting, but without the research a story is just a bunch of modern people in costumes. That’s not what I want to write.

For example, I wrote the first draft of Martin of Gfenn without knowing that there was no paper in Northern Europe during his lifetime (13th century). Martin is a fresco painter, and I had him drawing cartoons on sheets of paper. That would have been like the wristwatch on the galley slave in Ben Hur or whatever. 

But research is a directed search for answers; it’s not sitting in a comfy chair enjoying a story unfolding. It’s a scavenger hunt through a labyrinth.

The other factor is reading hundreds, nay, thousands, nay, tens of thousands of student papers and having to grade them. That can sure take the bloom off the rose, so to speak. I ultimately devised rubrics for every single project so that I was not obliged to mark the same thing over and over and over again. Students like these rubrics because they made the whole thing of writing an essay less like lacing a boot inside a black bag in a dark room. 

Over the past decade there have been a few writers whose brilliance has been able to lure me from my “I hate reading” cave. The most notable is Jane Gardam. Her stories are good and her writing is brilliant, clean, clear humorous and fun to read, demonstrating knowledge of and sympathy for people. 

I have also enjoyed several Icelandic Sagas and have one on my table for the very cold winter days that will come. They, too, are fun to read, clean writing, lots of action, some challenging moral questions, great descriptions of scenery and believable characters. My favorite remains Njal’s Saga. It was a huge thrill to me to be in Iceland and see the very place where Njal’s problems started, the remains of the Althing at Thingvellir, all this with an understanding of how law had failed Njal. It was great, even though I was in a lot of pain. Njal’s story was the great pull that took me to Iceland. 

I think that’s what good stories do — transport you to a different world. OK, late spring in Iceland was a saga of its own, but I was able to reach a profound understanding of why there were so many sagas written. 


7 thoughts on ““I’m a Writer, Not a Reader”

  1. I understand taking a break from reading in order to focus on a piece of writing, but all good writers must read. Writers who don’t read aren’t writing well. It shows.

    • I have a Masters in literature and I’ve taught literature, so believe me, I’ve read and read and read and read and read and read and read and read and written about what I’ve read and written about what I’ve read ad infinitum. I’m talking about recreational reading which I seldom do anymore. It just isn’t that entertaining, usually. If the writing isn’t good, I find myself critiquing it rather than enjoying the book. Sure, a good writer has to be literate, and, I believe, well-read, well-read meaning beyond popular literature, reading that involves some digging otherwise their work is going to be derivative and echo the moment. But all that, of course, depends on what they want to write. I think there can come a moment in a writer’s life (not a reader’s life — I think they’re two separate beasts) when it’s time to harvest experience and the experience includes everything that person has read as well as what they’ve lived, heard, imagined.

  2. I think I’m tired of reading but especially tired of reviewing, especially books in which I have no significant interest. I did one this week and by chapter 2, I knew exactly what was in the rest of the book. It wasn’t whether or not the book was well written. It was. but it was entirely generic. It was a “time travel romance,” and they gave you the entire next 200 pages before you got to Chapter 3. How do you review that? It’s not time travel. Not really a romance. And mostly, not very interesting, no matter HOW well written. I think from now on, I only review books I read voluntarily and loved. It’s easier that way.

    • Will that still work for The Price (note of self-interest here…) Some books have very predictable plots but the HOW can be captivating. I like finding those. I think that’s how Philip K. Dick held my attention through his entire oeuvre. And I’m sad I can’t read some of them again for the first time.

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