What reading does for me

- 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.

3 comments

  1. Perfectly said!

    I have had many stages of reading in my life, but right now I think is the hardest to enjoy it the way I used to. Not only have I been reviewing books for about 2 years online, but I have been taking writing classes and working on my manuscript, learning more about mechanics, the do’s and don’ts of the industry and let me tell you stuff pops up all the time that I think “they certainly didn’t take this or that particular writing class…or they just didn’t care”. (Nice, long run on sentence there huh?)

    But in the end it makes me focus more on what books are good, be more discerning and be able to appreciate the work that went into a book more. Thanks for the post Susanne!

  2. All so true.
    I think all novelists mourn the loss of the ability to get lost in a book. After all, getting lost in someone else’s story is one of things that made us want to tell our own stories, and hope we’d do it well enough to give readers that same experience.

    But you’re right about the benefits, too! We learn so much by studying how other writers make it work.

    Right now I’m reading a romantic suspense and loving it. Yes, I notice the writer’s techniques. But I like the story so much that I keep pushing the “writer” in me away by promising myself that after I’ve finished the story, I’ll go back and re-read to focus on how the writer made it all work. Best of both worlds, finding a book I love and from which I can learn.

  3. Luckily my family grew up without television in the house — I’m 62 right now.

    My brother and I walked a couple miles to the library a couple times a week and devoured books.

    I didn’t start writing myself until 2005 and knew nothing of the Craft. However, I’ve learned a lot since then. Now, I read both as an audience and as a reader, learning from both viewpoints.

    It can be a curse sometimes, but at least I can get a good grasp on why some passages, chapters and entire books don’t do anything for me as a reader. They teach me as a writer.

    Go read something and then go write something great!