Cinephiles rewatch films until they know them backward and forward. The average music fan is a walking iPod of melodies and song lyrics. Art lovers return to galleries time and again to contemplate a favored painting. Most novels, on the other hand, are read only once. Read and shelved away until, if the book is lucky, it gets loaned to a curious friend who never returns it.
Such is the life of a book.
Born in Illinois and raised in London, England, he now lives in Washington, DC, where he taught English literature and theater at a private high school for over a decade. Poisonfeather is his second novel. Follow FitzSimmons @.
There are good reasons for this. A book takes far longer to digest than a movie and doesn’t make for a good first date. Unlike music, you can’t read and drive. Reading is a private, antisocial, time consuming activity…coincidentally much like writing one. The calculus for most is simple – there are simply too many good books to fool around with rereading books a second much less a third time.
Ironically, writers are even less likely to reread books because they’ve been expressly told not to. Read widely, we are advised. If there’s an older saw dispensed to the aspiring novelist I haven’t heard it. Read widely – soak up a range of styles, techniques, perspectives, and genres. Don’t get me wrong, it’s excellent advice when you consider how many brilliant authors there are who deserve to be read. The difficulty is that it is also terrible advice if taken at face value.
Let us consider Toni Morrison, an indisputably brilliant author. Since 1970 with the release of The Bluest Eye, Ms. Morrison has published eleven novels. The artistry and genius of her writing makes it easy to see why she requires between three and six years to complete each book. The craft apparent in her work speaks to countless hours of writing and revision. Well, not countless, only three to six years’ worth. And in return, we read her novels in a matter of days or weeks. And based on that one reading, we form our critical judgment, comfortable in the knowledge that we got it. Then we put the book aside and move on to the next. We must. How else is one expected to read widely?
I taught English literature at a small high school in Washington DC for over a decade. It’s an experience that I credit for not only rekindling my love of writing but also for rewiring my approach to reading. I taught Ernest Hemingway for eight years. Before we began the unit, I would reread The Sun Also Rises once or twice to refresh my memory. Then I would read along with the students each night so that the chapters for homework were fresh in my mind. I would estimate, conservatively, that I’ve read The Sun Also Rises fifty times. I can say something similar for books by Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Truman Capote and many others.
The benefit to such a narrow focus was books that I realized that I had only scratched the surface of these books that I thought I knew so well. While teaching my students, I was also learning. Every pass through a familiar text yielded fresh insights. Gradually, these great authors opened up to me in a way that wasn’t possible from a single read. They became my teachers, and I know unequivocally that I owe my writing to their lessons.
Now I know that reading a book fifty times isn’t practical. Nor am I suggesting that aspiring writers should teach – alright, maybe I am suggesting that much. Reading widely is good advice, and I encourage it. But perhaps, in addition to reading widely, if you come across an author whose work you love, read it again and again until you know it inside and out. Sometimes it pays to read narrowly.
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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.