I always shudder a little when the rare student of writing tells me he or she doesn't like to read or doesn't see the need for it. I know things aren't going to turn out well in the writing sphere for this person. To be a writer you simply have to read, to fill up your personal well of words and language until it's overflowing, to travel the great universe of what's come before you in the recent and not-so-recent literary past. I can spot a writer who isn't well read fairly quickly; their work tends to be shallow and, ironically, derivative. Fortunately, most nascent writers want to read and those who refuse to read are fairly atypical.
As an MFA student and especially a Ph.D. student, I was quite familiar with reading lists and with the common refrain among my fellow students, "I cannot wait to read something I want to read." As if reading Middlemarch and Bleak House was somehow torture. Still and all, as important as those books were to me, choice is meaningful, and it was always a relief when the comprehensive exams were over and I could read anything I pleased.
Oddly, however, what I have found myself doing over the years of writing novels and essays is imposing reading lists upon myself so that my reading remained somewhat constrained. Of course, I must do research for the prose I write; that remains non-negotiable, and I actually enjoy spending time doing research (in another life, I might have chosen history as a profession). But recently, I have also found myself composing reading lists designed to influence -- or, specifically not -- influence the prose I'm currently working on that are just restrictive as anything my Ph.D. program could have imposed. "I'd like to read that," I might say of the current novel everyone in my circle is touting, "but I have books I need to read for my own novel." Or, when a friend publishes a novel or book of poetry I want to support, I'll buy it, but it will go to the bottom of the to-be-read pile because it doesn't help me with what I'm working on at the moment. Finally, when a piece of completely unrelated nonfiction comes along that I'm dying to read, say something in the spiritual/theological category, for I'm something of a seeker, that goes even further to the bottom of the pile -- despite the fact that that it might feed my starving soul.
The folly of this practice recently came home to me when I forced myself to read a book that I felt would support me in the novel I'm currently revising. The unnamed novel is set in the first part of the 20th century in New York City, as is the first part of my novel, and I thought it would be interesting to see how this novelist had handled the history and settings. Instead, I ended up disliking the book until the last hundred pages and found it frustrating and unhelpful. I then picked up a book that had recently come out on French food and culture by a favorite writer of mine -- the last third of my novel takes place in present-day France -- and was similarly disappointed to find it was more about the history of food than French food. I gave up after a few chapters.
Staring at my pile of To be read books had begun to feel like staring at my closet full of clothes despairing at having nothing to wear. "To hell with it," I said to myself. "I'm just going to pick a book I want to read."
I selected Barbara Brown Taylor's An Altar of the World: A Geography of Faith because, full disclosure, I had recently purchased it on sale and I had always wanted to read her work. I began reading with no expectations whatsoever and as I did, the strangest thing happened. Well, first I started really enjoying it, which is no surprise because her writing, about finding a loosely- defined God beyond church, has been long recommended to me. Second and more astonishing, however, passages in it started to relate to my novel, deepening what I've been trying to do, which is write about love and loss among generations of a family, more than anything I've read in months. And then I had an epiphany.
I realized I need to loosen my grip on my reading lists. As a young writer, I absolutely needed those lists to show me the way through dense forests of literature. I couldn't have developed properly without them. Now though, I'm realizing I need to trust the reading universe and my own desires to give myself what I need as a writer. Recently, I've also started reading Peaceful Neighbor: The Countercultural Mister Rogers by Michael Long, simply because Fred Rogers is a hero of mine. I've read everything else there is to read about the man and this is something new (to me) that I also suspect will feed my soul. Will it help with the novel I'm revising or the creative nonfiction I'm about to start after that? I don't know. Maybe. Maybe not. All I know is that in trying to make sure the reading universe would throw me a bone, in trying to control what I read down to not only what I read but the exact order of when and how I read it, I almost passed by some important ideas for my work.
But you can't control the universe. You would think I would know that by now.
All you can do is feed your soul what it seems to need.