The Seven Stages of My Reading Life So Far
Part 6: Writer
Groucho Marx once said he wouldn’t want to be a member of any club that would have him, which leads me to believe that Groucho and me have little in common save for similar eyebrows when I was younger.
I love being a writer, was thrilled to have my first book published six years ago, and I intend to hold onto my membership in this club until the day I die.
Being a writer changes a person as a reader. Whether the writer is published or unpublished, a story is no longer just a story: it’s also a benchmark against which to measure our own writing, an object of learning what works and what does not, a source of frustration if the author is perceived as being undeservedly more successful than we are.
Nearly every time I’m interviewed, one of the questions I’m asked is: “What advice would you give other writers?” I always answer the same two things, one of which is: “Read, read, read. Read everything you can get your hands on, in and out of your own area of writing, and recognize that you can learn just as much, sometimes more, from a bad book as you can from a good book.”
I’ve lived that advice. The best way to describe my reading habits? Eclectic. I’m as likely to read a book by a man as one by a woman, as likely to read literary fiction as commercial, as likely to read an adult novel as a young adult novel. I read it all. There’s nothing I won’t try.
Some books I’ve read simply because I am a writer, for research. During the revision stages of Vertigo, I read five books on Victorian design and five books on the British penal system, plus several other books written in that time period. In preparation for writing the contemporary comedic-gothic How Nancy Dew Saved My Life, I read several Nancy Drew books—all the steamed meats they ate back then!—and Jane Eyre. (“Reader, I married him”—definitely ironic!) Like many writers, I won’t read in a particular area while writing a book in the same area, but I definitely will while doing research and revisions. In fact, it was only after I accidentally began writing a YA novel—I say “accidentally” because I hadn’t intended to write one when I started but that’s how the book turned out—for the first time in my adult life I began reading widely in that genre, only to discover a wealth of good books that I might have missed otherwise
I read a lot. And when I say that, I mean a lot. For as long as I can remember, I’ve read 100-250 books a year, easy.
People often express shock at that number. First they want to know: “Why do you read so much?” So I tell them what I wrote here for BiblioBuffet in Part 1 of this series, that it was bred into me, that coming from a reading family, I learned at a young age to read defensively, that I needed to read and read a lot to remain part of the clan.
The inevitable next question is: “How do you read so much?” There have been times I’ve suspected this may be code for, “But don’t you have a life?” Still, I answer the question seriously, even while silently acknowledging to myself that the questioner regards me as an oddity. There are two ways I manage to read so much. The first is skimming. I have learned that certain kinds of books—works where the author is unnecessarily verbose or more plot-driven books where the author’s descriptive passages don’t merit close attention—are highly skimmable; one can read just the dialogue plus opening sentences of paragraphs and walk away feeling as thought the best of the experience has been had without dwelling on the boring bits. But judicious skimming isn’t the only way I manage to read so much, since at least half of what I read, when both story and writing are good, I don’t skip a word. So how do I really read so much? Back in college I knew a guy who was the highest-rated student in his particular department of engineering. People used to wonder how he could get such good grades in one of the school’s toughest departments and still manage to show up to parties at ten or eleven o’clock and party like crazy. I eventually figured it out. Whenever we didn’t see him, he was studying. The rest of us, if you didn't see us, it simply meant we were partying somewhere else. and that's similar to me with reading. Whenever you don’t see me—and sometimes even when you do—I’m reading. Family and friends come first, writing second, and then reading is everything. I read when I take breaks from writing, I read while waiting for pages to load on the computer, I read during commercial breaks when I’m watching television, I read in the bathroom. I even read while walking. In fact, at one point it was so bad, I had something of a reputation around my small city: The Woman Who Walks While Reading. Honestly, you’re no one as a crazy person until you’ve been stopped by someone in the supermarket who reacts as though you’re a rock star, shouting gleefully, “You’re her!” and then you realize they’re not stopping you because you’re a famous writer; they’re stopping you because you’re a famous reader.
There’s another question that comes up: “How do you pick what to read?” Answer: I read (almost) everything. I’m not interested in true crime or even much fictional crime if it’s particularly gruesome, although I will do so if a friend writes in that field or if a title comes highly recommended. Same goes for Westerns, Sci-Fi, or conventional romances, adult paranormal—but again, there are exceptions. I’m always happy to be wrong about a book if it means enjoying something I didn’t think I would. It’s not much different than food really. You grow up—OK, I grew up—thinking that the only suitable topping for pasta is cold Hunt’s tomato sauce, and somewhere along the way that perception changes. You realize—OK, I realized—that, “Huh, heating the sauce adds a whole other dimension to the experience, and, oh my, actually adding things to the heated sauce changes it yet again!”
And finally again, “But really, why do you read so much?” (Clearly, the questioner does think I’m crazy.)
I read so much because I love reading and you can’t possible be a good writer if you’re not a good reader.
Every now and then I’ll come across something that will astound me. A literary novelist did a guest stint on a site for readers and, curious, I asked her what commercial books she enjoyed. She said she never read any. She didn’t say it in a snobby way, nor did I think her a snob, and yet it was clear she believed her writing would be somehow polluted if she deigned to read what she regarding as inferior work. And then there was the time I sent a fan email to a male literary author, after which I noticed he had a sidebar on his site that recommended great books he’d read. Not a single one was written by a woman. I can’t imagine being like either of those writers. I don’t limit my admiration by gender and I do think that the vast ocean of books I’ve read—from Shakespeare down to the most skimmable of skimmable books—combines to inform who I am as a writer.
Of course being the sort of person who reads 100-250 books a year . . . why stop there?
On New Year’s Eve 2004, I did a crazy thing. I decided not to make the annual resolution to lose 10 pounds, finally recognizing the futility in such a pledge. I instead resolved to read 365 books in the coming calendar year—a book a day.
On January 1, for the first time in my life I began to keep a reading journal, with simple entries: date, title, author, and a star if the book was worthy of special note. Wanna take a peek, at least at the best books of 2005?
The Queen of the South by Arturo Perez-Reverte
Something Borrowed by Emily Giffin
The Kreutzer Sonata by Margriet de Moor
Eleanor Rigby by Douglas Coupland
The Autobiography of God by Julius Lester
The White Rose by Jean Hanff Korelitz
Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
Strange But True by John Searles
The World Still Melting by Robley Wilson
The Pleasure was Mine by Tommy Hays
The Falls by Joyce Carol Oates
Lighthousekeeping by Jeannette Winterson
The Bones by Seth Greenland
Windows on the World by Frederic Beigbeder
Winslow in Love by Kevin Canty
Manhattan Beach Project by Peter Lefcourt
My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult
Gods in Alabama by Joshilyn Jackson
Nama-a-Rama by Phillip Jennings
Something Blue by Emily Giffin
Lord Byron’s Novel by John Crowley
A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby
Innocence by Kathleen Tessaro
In the Shadow of the Law by Kermit Roosevelt
How to Breathe Underwater by Julie Orringer
The Days of Awe by Hugh Nissenson
The Highest Tide by Jim Lynch
The Darwin Conspiracy by John Darnton
The Book of Joe by Jonathan Tropper
The Darling by Russell Banks
Out by Natsuo Kirino
As Hot as It Was You Ought to Thank Me by Nancy Kincaid
The Bronte Project by Jennifer Vandever
The Practice of Deceit by Elizabeth Benedict
The Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, edited and with a preface by Matthew J. Bruccoli
Hazing Meri Sugarman by M. Apostolina
Looking for Alaska by John Green
Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
Bobbed Hair & Bathtub Gin by Marion Meade
Will They Ever Trust Us Again? by Michael Moore
102 Minutes by Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn
Savage Summit: The True Story of the First Five Women Who Climbed K2 by Jennifer Jordan
My Life So Far by Jane Fonda
Wilt 1962: The Night of 100 Points and the Dawn of a New Era by Gary M. Pomerantz
Driving Mr. Albert by Michael Paterniti
Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety by Judith Warner
The Friend Who Got Away by edited by Jenny Offill and Elissa Schapell
The Firm: The Troubled Life of the House of Windsor by Penny Junor
Come Back to Afghanistan: A California Teenager’s Story by Said Hyder Akbar and Susan Burton
Warden: Prison Life and Death from the Inside Out by Jim Willett and Ron Rozelle
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
What Remains by Carole Radziwill
Where There’s a Will: Thoughts on the Good Life by John Mortimer
Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women who Created Her by Melanie Rehak
Best by Individual Category
Adult Fiction: The Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, edited and with a preface by Matthew J. Bruccoli
Young Adult: Looking for Alaska by John Green
Nonfiction: 102 Minutes by Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn
I did just manage to squeak out reading 365 books in one year, although it was close. Fortunately I chose just enough lousy books and, what with my skimming talents acquired as a book reviewer, was able to make short shrift of those. And of course, having a child I had a built-in excuse for reading some fairly short books. Still, I read every word of the overwhelming majority, including the very last book read. With a week to go before the end of 2005, I’d knocked off 364 of 365 books. So I figured I’d have myself a treat. I picked up the 700 some odd pages of The Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, figuring it would be a cakewalk with all that time to read it. Snort! The holidays and life had other plans for me. Things got busy . . . and the print on that book was tiny! New Year’s Eve found me reading until I’d finished the last page, making my final entry in my reading journal for that year before going off to a party where I did not make a similar resolution.
Win a free copy of Lauren’s upcoming young adult novel, Crazy Beautiful! With each of Lauren's essays you will have a chance to win since we will be giving away a copy of this story—a contemporary re-visioning of Beauty & the Beast, told in he-said/she-said fashion, about a boy with hooks for hands and a gorgeous girl who meet on their first day at a new school—with each of Lauren’s seven essays. Send us an e-mail with your name each time this announcement is made (every other week). That’s it. For this first one drawing, all names received on or before Friday, October 2 will be entered, and the winner’s name will be drawn that evening. We will notify the winner over the weekend. Only one entry per person, please. There is no obligation, and your name and address will not be saved by BiblioBuffet or used for any purpose other than mailing the books.
Lauren Baratz-Logsted has sold 20 books to six publishers since 2003. Her published novels include The Thin Pink Line and Vertigo for adults; Angel’s Choice for teens, Me, In Between for tweens; and the first four of The Sisters 8, a nine-book series for young readers, co-written with her novelist husband Greg Logsted and their nine-year-old daughter Jackie. Her newest book is the YA novel Crazy Beautiful. Lauren still lives in Danbury, CT, where she writes and reads pretty much all the time. You can read more about Lauren's life and work at her personal website and the Sisters 8 site. Contact Lauren.