What was the first book you read as a kid? I don’t mean the first book your mom or dad read to you but the first book that you read. You know, the first one that you actually enjoyed because something about it clicked for you. The one that did it for me was The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. I think most kids read this book but in case you didn’t, it’s a coming of age story about two teenage rival gangs from opposite sides of the tracks. The book is loaded with emotion and it was easy to identify with the characters. I savored every page and didn’t want it to end. The bonus was finding out that S.E. Hinton was a woman—actually she was a teenager when she wrote the novel—and the story’s narrator is a boy. In fact, the majority of characters are boys. That pretty much blew me away. It was my first real understanding about a writer’s voice and style. It also led to a greater understanding that to write, you need to read.
Do you like to read? I hope so because reading is probably one of the most important things that will contribute to being a writer—and a good one. The two pretty much go hand-in-hand. I’m not talking about just reading travel writing. I’m talking fiction, non-fiction, newspapers, and print or digital magazines. If you drive to work, audiobooks make it easy to plow through books. They also make great cooking and workout companions.
The reason I’m asking is because no matter what it is that you read, you’re learning. Whether you realize it or not, you’re learning the art of writing in its many forms and styles—good and bad. Much like some people have an ear for music, reading helps to develop an inner ear for writing. If you find that you pretty much read the same type of literature, step out of that comfort zone and explore other genres. See what’s out there.
Many times, what you may be reading at a certain point in time can trigger an idea for a story. I’m not an architect, financial analyst or a man, but when I’m in a doctor’s office waiting room, I flip through the magazines geared towards those subjects to check out what’s happening. I usually come away having learned a few new things and, oftentimes, an inspired thought for something I’d like to write.
The beauty of reading is that you can do it anywhere, and e-book readers, audiobooks and laptops make it easier than ever to access information. These days, there’s almost no excuse not to read. Much like the handy notebook to jot down your ideas and observations, it’s always good to have a book or other type of reading material with you. Maybe you already do. A Kindle is great but, like smartphones, they’ll eventually run out of juice. Like the notebook and pencil, books are loyal travel companions wherever you may be. I recently spent two hours in line at immigration at JFK airport. Every once in a while when I looked up from my book, I heard people moaning and groaning about the wait. If I hadn’t had my book, I’d have been flipping out right along with them.
Similar to travel writers whose columns you admire, you may have already adopted a certain style of writing cultivated from your favorite authors. That’s a good thing, because it may have already contributed to helping you define your writing style. If you don’t read a lot then you may want to pay a visit to your local library where you can easily borrow all types of materials, including audiobooks. It also happens to be Celebrate National Library Week, another good reason to visit. Oddly enough, today marks the launch of the Digital Public Library of America which makes books, images, historical records, and audiovisual materials available to anyone with Internet access. If you prefer to buy your own, there’s no need to spend tons of money when there’s plenty of used books stores around—you can even get them on Amazon.com. I don’t want to burst your bubble, but it’s kind of a cardinal rule to writing. If you want to write—and write well—you’ve got to read…a lot.
Stephen Kings says, “The real importance of reading is that it creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing; one comes to the country of the writer with one’s papers and identification pretty much in order.” As far as I’m concerned, that pretty much sums it up.
Right now I’ve got the current issue of Outside magazine in my handbag and can’t wait to tear into it. The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr is on my nightstand. What are you reading or listening to these days? I’d really like to know.