I hated reading for a good chunk of my life. I didn’t struggle with it or anything; I just didn’t enjoy it—until I discovered science fiction and fantasy, that is. By degrees, everything changed after that. I looked forward to reading, I started buying books, I found my way to writing.
But, despite trying to make up for lost time and all my education in the various wings of English departments, I’m not nearly as well-read as I’d like to be. For the bulk of my active reading life, my diet has consisted largely of fiction, typically of the speculative sort. I can count on two hands the number of poetry books I’ve read. Only three years ago did I start reading nonfiction for pleasure in addition to information. I’ve managed only a tiny, tiny fraction of the canon, however malleable that is.
In the last post I wondered about the proper balance between reading and writing. Now I’m narrowing it down: if you’re a writer and you are reading, what kind of reading would be most useful for your literary growth?
Isaiah Berlin wrote that there are two kinds of people. (I’m always skeptical when anyone tries to simplify the world so neatly, but go with me on this.) You have foxes and you have hedgehogs. Foxes know many things and hedgehogs know one big thing, which I’ve always interpreted as breadth versus depth. Writers—and other artists, for that matter—seem to embody both. They need to know their craft well, but they also need to know about whatever they’re representing (or want to represent) in their work. In both cases, that knowledge comes from living, but it also comes from reading. Writers are often exhorted to read both widely and deeply, which can present a challenge.
I’ve read a lot of SF/F. Not doing so would be ridiculous—I’d have no idea what stories had been told, how the tropes had been used, what spoke to me and what left me cold. But reading only SF/F can become a closed-circuit. The ecosystem—in this case, my brain—doesn’t allow new elements in, which leads to stagnation and so a kind of death.
How, then, do you balance reading deeply with reading widely, especially when there’s so much material and not enough time? I guess with a contradiction: being experimental and conservative. If you know what sparks your interest, by all means, go there. Read your fill. But don’t confine yourself to that. Think of certain authors, genres, or whatever as home, a point to return to even as you venture outward, exploring. Sometimes you have to stick with something that doesn’t immediately hook you, because the new can be strange and, at first, uncomfortable. Still, not every experiment will be successful. And you have to be willing to draw up boundaries. Too many failed excursions probably means that something isn’t for you. That’s okay. Move on. Keep moving. Pick up something familiar to recharge you.
There’s enough work out there that you’ll never reach the end of what you love or what you haven’t discovered yet. That, to me, is exciting.