Novels: more than clever devices for trapping and holding house dust

- by Sharon Ashwood

ravenous I part with books about as willingly as I volunteer for periodontal surgery. Some people have a TBR pile. I have the makings of a pyramid large enough to shock a pharaoh. If I ever truly weeded the collection, I’d have to call a handyman to replace the lost insulation. Books aren’t just my friends, they’re my nesting material.

Ergo, it was an emotional moment when, in a fit of spring cleaning, I culled my paperback collection. As I sit down to write this, I’ve just returned from rehoming four large bags of books. I’m surprised at how liberated I feel. But then, this was a rite of passage.

To a would-be fiction writer, novels are more than a good read.  Books are maps. They are examples to learn from. If we want to educate ourselves on the must-haves of a genre, the preferences of a publishing house, or how a master of the craft spins a tale, we turn to the page. Learning the market means acquiring stacks of other people’s works. In my case, stacks of stacks. I’m a slow learner.

What I surrendered were four bagsful of roads studied but not taken. The models, voices, and story architectures in those volumes weren’t for me. They’ve gone on to show other people the way. I kept the teachers who spoke to my creative heart.

My drive home from the donation site bubbled with epiphanies. I wasn’t giving up books; I was defining my artistic path. For every decision, something must fall by the wayside. Saying “no” and “goodbye” is part of choice, and choice gives a journey direction.

Yeah, okay, that’s a lot of meaning to derive from thinning the paperback herd, but knowing what I’m NOT as a writer is just as important as worshipping my shelf of idols, right?

Gosh, how profound, I thought as I sprang up the front steps, freed of burdens both literal and metaphorical, I could get my own talk show. Well, not as a housekeeping diva. Sadly, my novel infestation still crams the shelves to overflowing like a slow creep of paper lava. I suspect that in my brief absence several litters of short stories grew to four-volume adulthood.

Nevertheless, I think I’m hot on the trail of an interesting idea. As writers, is what we choose not to read as important as what we seek out?


  1. You’re right. There are plenty of books I enjoyed as a reader that just wouldn’t work for me as a writer. Like, um, every book without a happy ending :) Separating my two selves — reader and writer — has gotten harder for me. I tend to read every story with a ‘how’d she do that?’ eye. I think I should make more of an effort to read some books for pleasure alone.

  2. Very profound indeed! I like this idea of “Books are maps.”

    I’m at the other end of spectrum of readers from you or Jessica. I read purely for pleasure. If it doesn’t look like it will entertain me, I’m down the road, crossing the street. But I might have to reconsider my choices, because I think you’re on the right path with this theory.

    When I returned from the fantasy world convention, it was with a bag full of books. Probably the most I’ve had in a long while. Being frugal me, I got rid of the heavy ones before I left, sent some as Christmas presents on my return, and put a pile aside as “give-aways.” I only kept one or two I figured I’d enjoy.

    One day I was stuck with nothing to read. So I picked up a book I would never have chosen myself, simply because it was on top of the “give-aways” pile. I’m well into this one and it’s such a fascinating read (Marseguro by Edward Willet).

    Instead of culling the roads I’ll never travel, I’m discovering roads I’ve missed, both as a reader and writer.

    Great thought-provoking post, Sharon.

  3. Interesting, Shereen! And isn’t it great to discover something new to enjoy. It’s kind of a winning-the-lottery feeling because I think, in some ways, it’s discovering something about yourself you didn’t know.

    To get all profound about it, books are mirrors as well as maps.

    I think after that I’d better quit while I’m ahead …