Is Reading still Relevant?

Q: What do you call a writer who doesn’t read?

a) A busy person
b) Someone whose thoughts are more important than others’
c) An individual who already knows everything there is to know
d) A failure

The answer, IMHO, is d), a failure. I’d like to believe that most writers know this, just as I want to think that most writers are aware that understanding the difference between your and you’re–or there, their, and they’re–is a prerequisite for a successful writing career. Still, in this era of self-publishing, in which anyone can call him/herself a writer, there is an awful lot of horrible stuff out there, written by people who don’t read and can’t spell, and seem to feel that media manipulation can take the place of artistry.

I recently read an article by a self-proclaimed “social media guru” (Yes, guru was the word used) who admonished writers to learn the intricacies of all social media “as if your life depended on it . . . because it does. (Emphasis mine)

Excuse me, but my life doesn’t depend on how frequently I tweet. Nor does–dare I say it?–my career as a writer. As I see it, Twitter and other social media only work as marketing tools if a) you’re already a celebrity with a wide following, or b) if you’re growing a fan base by developing relationships with people in your stream, who will eventually buy your books because they’re interested in you.

This last is indeed a viable reason to participate in these platforms. The downside is that they take time. One tweet a day–or three or four–exhorting strangers to buy your book isn’t going to do anything for you. Another article I recently read was by a woman who claimed that sales of her (debut) novel had skyrocketed through her involvement with Twitter. She went on to explain that, after tweeting an average of 45 times a day for two years, she had developed a number of cyber-relationships with like-minded individuals who, because of their tweeting acquaintance, wanted to further explore her ideas by reading her book.

For the first time, I began to understand the value of Twitter. But after reading the article, my question was–and still is–that if you tweet 45 times a day, when do you have time to read books? Or write them, for that matter? What if you work at a full-time job in addition to your writing schedule? Can you hope to write whole novels while actively pursuing a presence on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, Yolo, Goodreads, and Snapchat? And if so, when do you read? At the bottom of all this is a deeper question: Under these circumstances, is reading even an option anymore?

By reading, I’m not talking about squibs forwarded from friends into your email inbox, or the sort of blogs I’ve been referring to in this essay. I mean reading books, written by people who know (or knew) something about life, who may actually know (or have known) more than we ourselves do.

Traditionally, reading the work of others has been how writers learned to write. This makes sense. The shoulders of, say, Simone de Beauvoir or Aldous Huxley or Ezra Pound–important writers whose work has nevertheless not been made into movies–are there for us to climb onto. Even popular novelists whose books have been translated into films will tell you that watching the plots of their stories played out in a visual medium is not the same as reading their words.

What I’m saying is that writing without reading is like having to invent the wheel every time one sits down to work. Each wheel will be basically round, true, but it will never evolve from being a wheel to being a car or a clock or a ball bearing, because those things have come about by people who studied the wheels of others and so were able to surpass them.

Is reading necessary? That used to be a ridiculous question, since writers who didn’t read were always quantifiable failures–meaning they didn’t get published because they weren’t good enough–but that point is no longer moot. Please don’t get the impression that I’m demeaning all self-published work, because I’m not. I believe that, with the reactionary practices of America’s Bix Six publishers, the work of many fine writers wouldn’t otherwise get an opportunity to be in print. But even the most fervent advocate of self-publishing would have to admit that a lot of terrible so-called writers have cluttered up the market with execrable, unedited first drafts that are misspelled, cliche-riddled, and grammatically atrocious. Writing is not just another way to make money, or a cheap route to transient fame. It is, aside from all the marketing hoopla, an art form, and those of us who pursue this profession must strive to be artists, not hacks who equate producing books with squeezing link sausages out of a grinder.

I read, and I advocate reading, because I don’t want my voice to be the loudest sound in my head. There are other voices that I need to hear, and they are all speaking from books.