by Kris NeriLong before I was a writer, I was a reader. I think I was practically born reading. Even before I understood what those marks were on the pages of my picture books, I made up stories that I pretended to read. You could also argue that was writing, so I suppose I was born writing as well. But it was also my way of expressing that, even as a toddler, I understood that reading was something I considered important, and something I wanted to be able to do.
I suppose it helped that my mother was a voracious reader, that I could see that the happiest part of her day was the quiet time she spent with a book. It wasn’t long before that was our shared reading time.
I can’t imagine a life without the pleasure of reading. Sure, I know we all have too little time. I certainly do. I’m a writer with too many day jobs — I own and operate a bookstore, I teach writing, and I edit. Still, while I’m pulled in too many different directions, just as I make time to write, I also make time to read. I breathe, I read.
For a developing writer, reading provides an amazing advantage. In addition to whatever personal pleasure a story provides, every book a newish writer reads also provides so many lessons in writing, which the aspiring writer absorbs unconsciously and effortless.
When I teach writing classes, I always ask my students to include, as a part of their introductions, the authors they read regularly, or the books they’ve enjoyed lately. Mostly, I want to know whether they’re reading contemporary mysteries or they’re more interested in the classics. While there’s plenty to learn from the authors of the crime genre’s Golden Age, it’s absolutely essential that new writers develop a sense of today’s mysteries, so they understand the expectations of modern agents, editors, and readers. Art always reflects its culture, and the crime genre has evolved enormously since the sedate days of the classics. While my job as a writing instructor is certainly to provide them with explicit instruction in the craft of writing, I also see it as my role to direct them to the authors I know they’ll benefit from for implicit instruction.
So, coming from a reading background, you can probably appreciate my shock when I report that increasingly a significant portion of my students insist to me that they have never read and don't intend to. It’s just not something that interests them.
Oh, they’re in the minority of my students — the majority are devoted readers — but the non-readers are a larger and more vocal minority than I would have ever expected.
I don’t get it. This is frankly a hard career. It’s hard to get published, and for too many, it’s hard to stay published today. Writers also have to achieve a publishable standard on their own — while we are edited, writers are no longer leisurely mentored by editors through draft after draft as they were in decades past.
If they merely yearn to see their names on a cover, a far easier route would be to simply print their names on some cover design and forget about filling all those pages in between.
I know I’m right about how much reading influences writers. I can always see the differences in the quality of assignments between the readers and non-readers. The quality of the readers’ prose is always more mature, their voices are more lively, as is their dialogue, along with their ability to weave in different types of dramatic beats.
The non-readers, by contrast, will often insist to me that their non-reader friends tell them they don’t need descriptions of places or characters, and they seem to find it annoying when I insist they do. If they read, this wouldn’t come as a surprise to them.
I don’t mind beating a very dead horse, so I expect to keep repeating what I’ve written here for my non-reading students. I even bring in bigger guns to sway them. My favorite quote is one Stephen King wrote in On Writing: “You cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you.”
Hey, maybe I should just stop reading their assignments.