The Value of Reading

The importance and pleasure for writers of reading widely.

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When my son was at junior school, he was told he had to spend fifteen minutes every evening reading. Had to, you understand. For fifteen minutes. Right after he’d finished his sprouts and before he went to brush his teeth. I told him never to believe anything a teacher told him again. I taught him how to flip a teacher off while they’re talking without them noticing. Now there’s a useful skill.

Reading isn’t a duty. It isn’t something you should force yourself to do, like create a pension plan or hug your sweaty aunt. It should be an escape from real life, not another tedious duty within it. For God’s sake don’t go implying it’s a wearisome bore that has to be undertaken so children can get some good qualifications and a good job with good money and lie in a good box at the finish. Reading should be the antidote to that.

I read all the time, and without any thought to quality. I read because it shuts out the tiresome chatter around me and within me. It’s real life, but through a clever filter; some bright spark’s brain has processed it for me first. Reading is duct tape for the voices in my head. And when I’m writing I try to match my reading matter to the beast I’m creating, in a very vague way—fiction or non-fiction, serious or not. You can smell a whiff of what I was reading in whatever I’m writing—or at least I can—like a hint of salt in a margarita. If I’d been reading something funny my own tone would be lighter; if it was something grim and intellectual, my writing would be more angsty.

I maintain that for children, for authors—hell, for everyone—there’s no such thing as a book too bad to read. If you’re enjoying it, on any level, then it’s good enough. I love Martina Cole. She’s a treat to read. Even though you can’t hope for much character development and the prose might veer towards cliché, the plots are thrilling, tightly knotted, unpredictable affairs which leave me gasping in admiration and awe. I couldn’t write like that. Usually my plots run thusly: woman feels a bit sad, eats something, feels sadder. I admire those that can handle more complex plots, and maybe if I keep reading their output, I’ll learn a few tricks myself. Reading books you admire that are quite distinct from your usual creations is a really easy way to expand your own repertoire of writers’ ruses.

When you read something you wish you’d written, you’re bound to learn from it. Read something you know you could never possibly have written, nor indeed would ever want to, and you’ll learn heaps more. Recently my friend Nigel told me to read Robert Rankin’s The Chickens of Atlantis and Other Foul and Filthy Fiends, which are the memoirs and musings of a time-travelling Victorian monkey butler. I couldn’t have written that if you threatened me with a mouldy kipper, and I’d never even have thought to read it if I hadn’t wanted to please Nigel, but blow me if I didn’t love it and learn from it. Turns out plot doesn’t matter a jot as long as you’re entertained. My burgeoning career is safe.

Reading develops empathy too. Take a peek into other people’s lives and heads and see how and why they choose to behave as they do, find something to relate to in their feelings or actions; it’s useful for all of us, but as writers, trying to create our own imaginary worlds, all the more vital. We all look to metaphors to explain ourselves to ourselves, whether we know it or not. Reading widely gives us a more interesting array of allegories to choose from. You may find you understand your own motivations and behaviour in subtler, more useful ways when you identify with Daniel Deronda rather than Danger Mouse, and also that your characters’ behaviour will become more subtle and interesting in consequence. Otherwise we only really have access to the contents of our own heads, and Lord knows my head can be a lonely, scary place. Reading allows you to see behind the scenes in a way that telly or actual human contact can’t manage. There, you can only see the surface. A good book, expertly crafted, lets you see heaps more; a better book will let you see what you can’t usually see, and give you pause to wonder about it.

Melissa Todd completed an MA in creative writing at Canterbury Christchurch in 2009, and writes novels, short stories and opinion pieces.

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