“Long before the idea of a writer’s conference was a glimmer in anyone’s eye, writers learned by reading the work of their predecessors. They studied meter with Ovid, plot construction with Homer, comedy with Aristophanes; they honed their prose style by absorbing the lucid sentences of Montaigne and Samuel Johnson. And who could have asked for better teachers: generous, uncritical, blessed with wisdom and genius, as endlessly forgiving as only the dead can be?”
American novelist Francine Prose writes in her book “Reading Like a Writer: “A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them”.
Reading is one of the most enriching ways to spend your time, and hence life. Writing, even more so. However, there is a constant osmosis between these two. Reading nourishes writing. A writer who doesn’t read, will not generate good work. And the writer who does not read deeply, breathing in the words on paper and making them her own, will not benefit as much from reading as she could have.
The masters of literature from centuries have been teaching us how to write. Their message is hidden beneath the layers of their words.
“Though writers have learned from the masters in a formal, methodical way—Harry Crews has described taking apart a Graham Greene novel to see how many chapters it contained, how much time it covered, how Greene handled pacing, tone, and point of view—the truth is this sort of education more often involves a kind of osmosis.”
Francine illustrates her point by throwing light on her own experience of how reading moulded the writer she is.
“In the ongoing process of becoming a writer, I read and reread the authors I most loved. I read for pleasure, first, but also more analytically, conscious of style, of diction, of how sentences were formed and information was being conveyed, how the writer was structuring a plot, creating characters, employing detail and dialogue….I read closely, word by word, sentence by sentence, pondering each deceptively minor decision that the writer had made. And though it’s impossible to recall every source of inspiration and instruction, I can remember the novels and stories that seemed to me revelations: wells of beauty and pleasure that were also textbooks, private lessons in the art of fiction….
I read addictively, constantly. On one family vacation, my father pleaded with me to close my book long enough to look at the Grand Canyon. I borrowed stacks of books from the public library: novels, biographies, history, anything that looked even remotely engaging….
Library (Source: decalgirl.com)
I left graduate school and became a writer. I wrote my first novel in India, in Bombay, where I read as omnivorously as I had as a child, rereading the classics I borrowed from the old-fashioned, musty, beautiful university library that seemed to have acquired almost nothing written after 1920. Afraid of running out of books, I decided to slow myself down by reading Proust in French…
Reading a masterpiece in a language for which you need a dictionary is in itself a course in reading word by word. And as I puzzled out the gorgeous, labyrinthine sentences, I discovered how reading a book can make you want to write one.”
She highlights how in a good book, language subtly and cleverly prepares you for what is to come next. And if you read closely, you will see this, and it will give you great joy.
“Long before the blinding of Oedipus and Gloucester, the language of vision and its opposite was preparing us, consciously or unconsciously, for those violent mutilations. It asked us to consider what it meant to be clear-sighted or obtuse, shortsighted or prescient, to heed the signs and warnings, to see or deny what was right in front of one’s eyes.”
How to hone this subtle and sublime art? By reading a lot.
“The more we read, the more rapidly we are able to perform that magic trick of seeing how the letters have been combined into words that have meaning. The more we read, the more we comprehend, the more likely we are to discover new ways to read, each one tailored to the reason why we are reading a particular book.”
There are so many great books to read, and life alas is so short.
One is tempted to read quickly, take speed reading classes. But does that help?
“With so much reading ahead of you, the temptation might be to speed up. But in fact it’s essential to slow down and read every word. Because one important thing that can be learned by reading slowly is the seemingly obvious but oddly underappreciated fact that language is the medium we use in much the same way a composer uses notes, the way a painter uses paint. I realize it may seem obvious, but it’s surprising how easily we lose sight of the fact that words are the raw material out of which literature is crafted.”
Artist: Elizabeth O. Dulemba
She speaks of the art of writing and how small changes in words and sentences make the difference in a masterpiece and a mediocre piece of work. The story told might be the same. The difference is in how it is told.
“Every page was once a blank page, just as every word that appears on it now was not always there, but instead reflects the final result of countless large and small deliberations. All the elements of good writing depend on the writer’s skill in choosing one word instead of another. And what grabs and keeps our interest has everything to do with those choices.”
She eventually encourages the reader to take the time and pains to read closely, not just see the skin but the muscles, sinews and bones of a book.
The benefits, she promises are worth it.
“Reading this way requires a certain amount of stamina, concentration, and patience. But it also has its great rewards, among them the excitement of approaching, as nearly as you can hope to come, the hand and mind of the artist. It’s something like the way you experience a master painting, a Rembrandt or a Velasquez, by viewing it from not only far away but also up close, in order to see the brushstrokes.”