- by susanne dunlap
I don’t know many writers who don’t love to read. At least, not many REAL writers. When I was a child, reading was one of my primary activities, the way I could escape from the trials and tribulations of being a skinny nerd and find characters and worlds to immerse myself in. I’d discover a writer I loved and gobble down everything he or she wrote. From the Nancy Drew books, to Marguerite Henry, to Mary Renault, to Agatha Christie and on and on and on. I loved books, especially mysteries, but I never thought that much about what made them work.
I came to writing fiction relatively late in life, after careers in advertising, academia and fundraising. The transition is too complex to go into here, but once I became a writer, I noticed something interesting: reading changed for me too.
In fact, there have been times when I have been completely unable to get through an entire book. Part of that is, like many authors, I suspect, I feel obliged to read books written by my friends and colleagues when they might not be something I’d ordinarily pick up in a bookstore. I’ve discovered some wonderful treasures that way, but also found myself looking at page numbers and wishing they’d whiz by a little more quickly, or else plan to get through enough so I could say nice things to the author without having to finish the book. And friends and colleagues out there, I’m not offended if sometimes you’ve done the same with my books. Let’s face it, not all books are for everyone!
Perhaps another factor that has affected the way I read is that I did a two or three-year stint reviewing books for the Historical Novels Review. That was a mixed experience, certainly. I was fortunate in getting to read some astonishingly good books (The Invention of Everything Else by Samantha Hunt comes to mind), but I also had to force myself to finish a few that left me—frankly—cold.
That’s not to say I didn’t benefit from any of it, or that I will stop reading my friends’ books anytime soon. Because as a writer—as the amazing Francine Prose has written—one reads differently. It is rare that I find a book so absorbing that I can forget the craft and just plunge into the world the author creates, reading and reading until the small hours of the morning as I once used to. But my added, writerly awareness makes the experience of reading anything, whether I end up liking it or not, richer. I admire not just the ingenious turn of phrase, but the structure, the pacing, the way the author uses dialogue tags, or how she manipulates the reader’s emotions. I notice tricks and solutions to problems like pace and plot advancement, and places where despite everything, the plot lags, and I learn from them all.
I have begun to understand how editors in publishing houses must yearn for the books that not only get their business juices going, but that perform the magic of subsuming the reader in their worlds, and why they are able to read a chapter of even a well-written book and say, “This is not for me.”
Paradoxically, I’ve learned to accept and enjoy this new kind of reading. In some ways, I consider it part of my job as an author. Reading with that heightened sensibility is almost as important as writing every day.
And there is always the possibility that one of those rare books will turn up, and I’ll be thrown back to childhood again, biting my nails as I turn the page, laughing and crying with characters with whom I’m so involved that I feel bereft when I finally reach the last page.
All in all, reading is still what writing is all about.