Writers Talk About Writing
The Power of Reading Good Books
The single most valuable thing an aspiring writer can do to improve his or her work may be stated in three words:
Read good books!
Unfortunately, the statement begs the question, what makes a good book? The book you prize I may scorn; the book that thrills me may bore you. Hoping to settle for once and for all what books are truly worth reading, many scholars over many years have compiled "canons," long catalogs of books that they deem stones sturdy enough to buttress the glorious cathedral of world literature. Canons, however, pose their own problems: if long, they include dusty antiquities likely to bore modern readers; if short, they annoy readers who love books and authors left out.
Many readers find the whole idea of canon-making offensive. "Who are you, Charles Eliot, who are you, Harold Bloom, to say what books do or don't make the grade?" mutter many readers when scanning the Harvard professor's century-old Five Foot Shelf or the Yale professor's twenty-year-old The Western Canon; "I'll make up my own mind, thank you very much!"
Consulting someone's book list may help us find a new treasure, but we aspiring writers can leave the nit-picking to the academics; if they enjoy clucking and pecking over their favorites in their henhouse cloisters, more power to them. Our goal is simple: to make a life-long habit of reading good books, however we find them, whoever wrote them, and whenever or wherever they were written.
For my part, I'd loved reading ever since I'd devoured Huckleberry Finn in the fourth grade. So, on finishing college, I told myself, "Maybe I'm leaving school, but must I leave good books behind? No! Today I'll go to a bookstore and find a new Dickens (Dombey and Son), a new Balzac (Lost Illusions), or hey, I've never read any Theodore Dreiser, why not try Sister Carrie?"
The only problem when hunting for a new good book is: which book? I'm always hoping to bag something new and different, and any book I haven't read by any writer from Herodotus to Philip Roth is fair game. In the past few years I've tracked down a half-dozen H. G. Wells' novels, and now Tono Bungay and The New Machiavelli have honored niches in my own personal canon.
One principle has often improved my odds of success: GET A BIG BOOK THAT HAS STOOD THE TEST OF TIME. That's how I came to read Don Quixote, Les Miserables, and War and Peace. I'd known the titles of these books all my life, heard them praised and quoted in other books, in magazines and in casual conversation. Any book that two, three, or a dozen generations of readers have declared masterpieces of world literature — how bad could it be? So I gave these (and Tom Jones, Vanity Fair, and Gulliver's Travels) a chance and, like countless readers of generations past and surely to come, I fell in love with the books at first sight and forever.
Good books deliver enlightening, inspiring, and nourishing pleasures. Reading a poor book is like sipping weak tea or chewing a stale slice of white bread; reading a good book is like devouring a feast delicious from the first bite of a spicy appetizer through a juicily broiled entrée, accompanied by a glass or two of a mellow red wine, and topped off with a chocolate tart and a cappucino. That's how I feel reading Shakespeare, Balzac, Defoe, George Eliot, George Orwell, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Fielding, Thackeray, and many, many more.
Good books offer spiritual as well as sensual delights. Reading Don Quixote we laugh at the deluded Don and his loyal Sancho Panza, but we are not amused from afar: guided by Cervantes, we join their ambling companionship as an invisible third friend, and by listening in on their cranky, intimate chats that zigzag as endlessly as their travels, we learn about our own foolish wanderings through the thick and thin of life.
Good books give us goals to aim at in our own writing and show us how to reach those goals. Dickens teaches how to paint an expressionistic portrait:
Mr. Carker the Manager, sly of manner, sharp of foot, watchful of eye, oily of tongue, cruel of heart, nice of habit, sat with a dainty steadfastness and patience at his work, as if he were waiting at a mouse's hole.
—Dombey and Son
—Trollope how to paint a plain one:
Brooke Burgess...was a good-looking man, with black whiskers and black hair, which, as he said, was beginning to thin on the top of his head, and pleasant small bright eyes...He was rather below the middle height, and somewhat inclined to be stout.
—He Knew He Was Right
—Dreiser how to write natural dialogue:
"...I suppose people thought that I would never marry anybody like you, either," he added jokingly.
"Yes, you did make a terrible mistake," jested his wife in return. "You worked awfully hard to make it."
"I was young! I was young!...I didn't know much in those days."
—Jane Austen how to reveal a young woman's tender heart:
[Anne felt] there could have been no hearts so open no tastes so similar, no feelings so in unison, no countenance so beloved. Now they were as strangers; nay, worse than strangers, for they could never become acquainted. It was perpetual estrangement.
—and James Jones how to reveal the brutality of men at war:
Standing above him spraddle-legged to keep his pants up, he drove the rifle butt again and again into the Japanese man's face, until all of the face and most of the head were mingled with the muddy ground.
—The Thin Red Line
Good books offer endless examples of what writing can teach us about rendering life in word, but to pick one, here's a passage from Thucydides' The Peloponnesian War, another book I read on the "If it's lived this long, it must be good" principle. The scene: rosy-fingered dawn rising over Piraeus, Athens' harbor, in the summer of 415 BC when Athens' empire stood at a peak of prosperity and power. A fleet of six hundred triremes commanded by Alcibiades and packed with soldiers, archers, and cavalrymen, gathered to sail to Sicily and attack Syracuse, Athens' only rival for dominance of the Mediterranean. "The entire population of Athens, citizens and foreigners," wrote Thucydides, "went down to Piraeus":
…all had people to see off on their way, whether friends or relatives and sons, and they came full of hope and full of lamentation at the same time, thinking of the conquests that might be made and thinking, too, of those whom they might never see again.
—and all were amazed by the "incredible ambition" of the expedition, its "astonishing daring and brilliant show." A trumpet sounded the moment of departure, and silence fell:
The whole army had wine poured into bowls, and officers and men made their libations from cups of gold and silver. The crowds on the shore also joined together in the prayers. Then, when the hymns had been sung and the libations finished, they put out to sea, first sailing out in column, then racing each other as far as Aegina.
The passage took my breath away when I first read the book decades ago and still does today. Thucydides surely stood among the crowd that summer morning; how many eyewitness accounts do we have of world-changing mornings from two thousand four hundred and twenty-nine years ago?
Even more moving is the tragedy of the scene. In further chapters Thucydides describes how the expedition ended in a series of disastrous defeats for the Athenian forces. Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes were all alive that fateful midsummer morning, so were Socrates, Plato, and Xenophon, and quite possibly one or more of them stood in the crowd with Thucydides and watched the fleet sail west. Yet none of them knew, as we know now, that this hubristic over-reaching would end of the glory that was Greece.
Not every good book can deliver such soul-stirring ironies, yet similar insights into the riddles and quirks of human nature, twists of accident and fate, cruelties and kindnesses, heartfelt tears and uproarious laughter, sweet love and bitter hate — these are the hallmarks of all good books, whose golden wisdom we can mine simply by opening their covers and beginning to read.