Publish date:

Read Narrowly: When You Should Read Books You Love Again and Again

While you should read as many books as possible, there's something to be said for reading your favorite books by writers you love time and time again.

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.

This guest post is by Matthew FitzSimmons. FitzSimmons is the author of the bestselling first novel in the Gibson Vaughn series, The Short Drop.

matthew fitzsimmons
matthew fitsimmons cover

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 @MatthewFitz_1.

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.

Thanks for visiting The Writer's Dig blog. For more great writing advice, click here.

brian-klems-2013

Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer's Digest and author of the popular gift bookOh Boy, You're Having a Girl: A Dad's Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

Follow Brian on Twitter: @BrianKlems
Sign up for Brian's free Writer's Digest eNewsletter: WD Newsletter
Listen to Brian on: The Writer's Market Podcast

4 Tips on Research for Writing Novels and Stories Beyond Getting the Facts Right

4 Tips on Research for Writing Novels and Stories Beyond Getting the Facts Right

The kind of research you do can make or break your story's authenticity. Author Blake Sanz offers 4 tips on research for your novels and stories beyond getting the facts right.

writer's digest wd presents

WD Presents: Annual Writing Competition Early-Bird Deadline, Seven WDU Courses, and More!

This week, we’re excited to announce the Annual Writing Competition early-bird deadline, seven WDU courses starting this week, and more!

3 Big Tips for Writing a Children’s Picture Book Like a Pro

3 Big Tips for Writing a Children’s Picture Book Like a Pro

Small but mighty, picture books help raise children into lifelong readers. Children's book author Diana Murray offers 3 big tips for writing a picture book like a pro.

5 Things I Learned About Writing From Watching Soap Operas

5 Things I Learned About Writing From Watching Soap Operas

Lessons in writing can come from various forms of art or entertainment. Author Alverne Ball shares 5 things he learned about writing from watching soap operas.

From Script

Writing from an Intimate Point of View and Adding Essential Elements to Solidify Your Screenplay (From Script)

In this week’s round up brought to us by Script magazine, TV writer Kate Sargeant shares a first-hand look on her new digital series that was a life-changing experience. Plus an interview with filmmaker Mia Hansen-Løve, a new installment from ‘Ask the Coach’ and more!

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Collecting Advice but Never Writing

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Collecting Advice (but Never Writing)

The Writer's Digest team has witnessed many writing mistakes over the years, so this series helps identify them for other writers (along with correction strategies). This week's mistake is to collect writing advice at the expense of actually writing.

The Benefits of a Book Coach for Writers

The Benefits of Having a Book Coach for Writers

What is a book coach? How could they help authors? Award-winning author and writing instructor Mark Spencer answers these questions and more in this post about the benefits of having a book coach for writers.

Clare Chambers: On Starting Fresh and Switching Gears

Clare Chambers: On Starting Fresh and Switching Gears

Award-winning author Clare Chambers discusses the fear and excitement of switching genre gears in her new historical fiction novel, Small Pleasures.

Poetic Forms

Exquisite Corpse: Poetic Forms

Poetic Form Fridays are made to share various poetic forms. This week, we look at the exquisite corpse (or exquisite cadaver), a collaborative poem that would make a fun poetic game.