The Importance of Being Well-read: Why Literature Alone is Not Enough

If I could time-travel and speak to my 14-year-old self, and I was allowed to deliver only one sentence of advice to the nascent young poet that I was, I think I’d say this: “If you read what everyone else reads, you’ll write what everyone else writes.”

Seems obvious, right? But very few budding writers seem to truly understand there is a channel cut directly from the writing you consume to the writing you produce. Tone and voice is crafted in large part by what you’ve read. A writer’s voice is an amalgamation of everyone she’s read…imbued, of course, with her own personality.

As such, it can’t be understated how important it is to read both deeply and widely.

Reading deeply–that is, reading a great deal of work within one literary discipline– tends to be the less neglected of the two. As writers and readers, we are more apt to become well-versed in the writing disciplines that interest us most. If you love fantasy, for instance, it’s likely that you’ve delved into more obscure works than The Lord of the Rings.

Reading widely, however, seems less common. Reading widely involves consuming all manner of writing across varying tones, mediums, styles, nationalities, perspectives, and genres.

Disparate types of writing, when integrated, can create fascinating new directions in the creative process, even forming entirely new genres. For instance, at some point, someone thought, “Why not apply zany sci-fi concepts to the technology of the Industrial Revolution?” And just like that, Steampunk was born.

So how do you ensure you’re reading widely?

The answer is simple: purposefully pair each book you read with one that’s diametrically opposed. If you’ve read nothing but American poets recently, try Charles Baudelaire or Kobayasha Issa. Reading something lofty and classic, like Plato’s Republic? Pair it with something flippant and low-brow, such as a book by Charles Bukowski. Try offsetting the metaphysical poetry of Andrew Marvell with the quick-witted detectives in a dark and gritty Raymond Charles novel.

Read literary fiction alongside genre fiction. Read the old classics and new, experimental writers. In so doing, you’ll ensure that you’re exposed to a variety of ideas and styles of writing.

If, in the literary sense, you intend on standing on the “shoulders of giants,” as Isaac Newton did in the field of science, you have to content yourself to first stand in the shadow of giants.

This means you have to dig deep in your reading. You can’t shy away from the influential writers in your particular field of study. By reading extensively, you’ll ensure you’re drawing deep from the well of the written word.

Writers have a knack for finding excuses to put off developing these disciplines like they should. Three of the most common excuses are as follows:

1.) It’s daunting. So much ink has been spilled throughout human history. It’s easy to become overwhelmed. For some reason, people who are passionate about reading tend to view this as a sufficient enough reason to become discouraged.

By contrast, an avid fisherman never expects to catch every species of fish in the world. He recognizes it as an impossible task. He knows it’s foolish to think otherwise. Why then, as readers, do we become discouraged at the prospect of falling short in being “well-read?”

Suppose, for a moment, that you read 50 books a year. That’s close to a book a week, and is impressive by any measure. Now, let’s say that you kept this up for every year of your adult life, and you lived to be 80-years-old. Even with all of this reading, you’d only log about 3,100 books read.

Reading that many books might seem like an impressive feat, even if it’s spread throughout the entirety of your adult life. But let’s put that number into perspective. According to Google’s (admittedly inexact) algorithm, approximately 130 million books have been published in modern history.

So, let’s say you read 50 books a year for your entire adult life. You never fell short, not even for one year, and you outlived the current life expectancy. Even without accounting for all the books that will be written between now and when you die, you would only have read 0.002% of modern literature.

Most people recognize they can never read all the classics. I’m here to tell you: you can’t even come close. So rather than beating yourself up for it, dive in and enjoy as many books as you can.

2.) You don’t know where to start. This excuse is pretty commonly paired with #1. There’s so much to read…so where exactly should you start?

The short answer is it doesn’t matter. If you have friends that know you well, ask them for book recommendations. Chances are, they’ll know your preferences better than most. Alternatively, look up the “classics” (in either literary or genre fiction) and work your way down a list. When you find that you love a particular book, look into other works that the author has created. Does your favorite author have any stated influences? If so, rabbit-trail in that direction.

The possibilities are endless. The important thing is simply that you start on your journey.

3.) You don’t truly see the value in reading extensively. As surprising as it is, some writers truly don’t believe that reading broadly will help improve their writing. Some go so far as to say they don’t want their own “unique voice” tainted by reading too much of others work.

In reality, reading widely is of massive importance. One can’t diverge from the status quo without first knowing what is out there.

By reading widely and deeply, you can utilize (either consciously or subconsciously) techniques and styles that you’ve accumulated throughout your study. This, in turn, will help you to be a much more varied and unique writer.

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One thought on “The Importance of Being Well-read: Why Literature Alone is Not Enough

  1. “If you read what everyone else reads, you’ll write what everyone else writes.” I never thought about it in these terms before! What an interesting concept. We really are sponges, squeezing out whatever we soak up.

    I enjoyed the imagery in your writing. Keep up the good work!


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