I want you to conduct a little market research for me.
I want you to ask the people you know who are writers, aspiring, published or otherwise, what they are reading right now.
How often they read.
I had a conversation with a friend of mine who teaches a creative writing course at the local university about writers and reading. She says that most of her students don’t read. They are adults who are paying fifteen thousand dollars to do a degree and they don’t read. They are too busy learning how to be writers. They are too busy writing, to read.
Something is definitely wrong with that scenario. The way I look at it is, how can you become a writer – a good writer – if you don’t read? Chick lit, poetry, speculative fiction, romance, horror, historical fiction, literary fiction, GOOD LORD even non-fiction will do. My point is you must read if you want to write.
Yet there seems to be an alarming trend developing that aspiring writers feel they don’t need to read in order to write.
It makes no sense to me. You can write as many paragraphs describing a bowl of fruit as you want but if you don’t read the way the great writers do it, you may as well not bother.
You can study the elements of writing till the cows begin to moo in the back pasture but if you don’t look at how the greats bend and flex those elements into something beautiful, you are, in my opinion, wasting your time.
There is one reason and one reason alone that I began to write.
I loved reading.
I love reading.
There’s no underlying, deeply profound reason about me thinking I could say something that would change the world or gain riches or fame.
I loved to read and as a result became interested in writers and writing.
I used to read well over 500 books a year.
That has slowed down now. I read on average about one hundred full length novels per year as well as plays, poetry and screenplays. I read pretty much anything that grabs my interest and I cover a wide range of genre.
The point is, the books I read inform my writing. They are my teachers. Form, nuance, narrative, motivation, depth. I firmly believe it is true to say that you can learn a lot from books.
I have heard people talking about the trend against reading among writing students more than once. It bothers me a bit. There’s a kind of arrogance in it that is symptomatic of a wider arrogance in modern society. I don’t like arrogance. It implies intolerance and inflexibility. And a know-it-all kind of personality; and the powers that be know I hate a bloomin’ know-it-all.
Think of all the books you have read in your lifetime. What if you had never read them?
Think of the worlds they created for you. Think of what you felt while reading them. Of what you learned not just about the world but about yourself.
Have you ever read a book that may not have been your favourite book but you just can’t deny its power? Have you ever looked at the imagery in that book, the observations, and just been knocked backwards by the force of the creative punch the writer delivers?
The Catcher In the Rye is such a book for me.
Oh, here we go, you are saying.
Selma just thinks she’s so cool and literary and all that talking about J.D. Salinger.
What a friggin’ showoff.
Not at all.
I first read The Catcher In The Rye when I was 17 and hated it. Holden Caulfield was a whiny pain in the ass who completely got on my nerves. I couldn’t stand him or the novel he appeared in. Then when I read about Salinger and his eccentricities I thought: Typical. What a loon.
I didn’t pick up The Catcher In The Rye again until I was in my late twenties. I was shocked that I had so readily dismissed it. No matter what you think about that subjective, stream of consciousness style of narrative, you can’t deny how effective a technique it is in this novel.
And what an important novel it is.
Did you know that there is a whole genre of writing dedicated to books influenced by Catcher In The Rye? They include brilliant works such as The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews and a novel by one of my personal heroes, Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis.
Catcher In The Rye has also played an influence in film and other forms of popular culture.
For those of you who haven’t read it, the story is told by Holden Caulfield, a seventeen- year-old dropout who has just been kicked out of his fourth school. He is the poster boy for disaffected youth. It is about his journey to self-discovery.
As well as capturing the conflicts and crises many young adults face, Salinger also manages to present a concise piece of social criticism in an era of what Holden refers to as phoniness. Throughout, Holden dissects the phony aspects of society, and the phonies themselves. He is, in fact, dissecting the consequences of the American Dream. And the price of progress.
The themes in Catcher In The Rye are still relevant today. They will probably always be relevant. We might not call them phonies anymore but there are still plenty of people around who are not known for being genuine. The phoniness inherent in our current society forces us to not necessarily be ourselves and I know I’ve been thrown into an existential crisis because of it. More than once.
You might think that The Catcher In The Rye would be in my list of top ten books.
It doesn’t even make it into my top fifty.
But I think of it every now and then and cannot deny its power.
There is one image that sticks in my mind for its awareness of insignificance and pain and vulnerability. Often, I gasp when I think of it.
It was that kind of a crazy afternoon, terrifically cold, and no sun out or anything, and you felt like you were disappearing every time you crossed a road.
That image, which appears in the very first chapter, of feeling like he was disappearing as he crossed the road, has stayed with me for years.
It blows my mind even now.
Discovering images like that are why I read so avidly in the first place.
Why I continue to read.
And why I write.
It sounds simplistic, almost trite to say this, but –
Reading, it’s important.
So, if you want to be a writer, a good writer, the best you can be; do yourself a favour and go and pick up a book.
And keep on reading.