Well, this is the last item on my list of tips for how to be a kickass writer. I have lots more ideas about what makes somebody good at writing, especially writing novels, but these are the big five I keep thinking about.
Read whatever you want, and read as much as you can. Forget about reading Harvard’s yard of books or that derivative novel with the cool cover the hipster next to you in the café is reading, or the book your friends keep raving about that gives you a pain in the metaphor.
If you want to write stories you love, read stories you love. If you have a thing for Popular Mechanics, read it. You will then write for the audience you are.
Don’t try too hard. Let the variety in your library grow in and of itself. It will, if you go on reading.
When I was a young(er) wee writer, I used to pick my books for plane trips with great care. I wanted to be seen reading Middlemarch or The Economist or something else I thought other people would consider incredibly, unbelievably, massively cool. Nowadays I travel with a toddler, so I don’t read on planes, and inevitably have some spot of snot or food that she has carefully smeared on my shoulder or my boob, so it wouldn’t matter if I was reading Granta or Il Barone Rampante or 白河夜船. I don’t get to look cool on the outside all that often.
That’s OK, though, because I happen to have discovered that I, myself, am, with all my flaws, incredibly, unbelievably, massively cool—so when I do read in public I read whatever the heck I want to, like the weirdest, most embarrassingly trashy magazine on the table in the doctor’s office, or a romance novel set in Montana and featuring a guy with an enormous, ah, ranch, or Middlemarch, which I happen to love.
I also reread certain novels. I have reread Persuasion at least thirty times, and all of the rest of Austen’s canon about the same amount (Pride and Prejudice probably leads by a short head.) I have reread Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams and Pigs In Heaven at least fifteen times each, likewise Le Guin’s The Other Wind, Sayer’s Gaudy Night, Wodehouse’s Uncle Fred in the Springtime, Heyer’s Cotillion, all of McCaffrey’s Dragonsinger series. The all-time winner? Well, it’s got to be a tie between Pride and Prejudice and A Wizard of Earthsea.
Do I wish that this list had more diversity? Sure. I do notice there’s exactly one man on it and no people of color. That doesn’t mean I haven’t read plenty of Walker, Alexie, Northrup, Jemisin and so on. In fact I’m not sure why it’s such a pile of white girls—maybe for the simple reason that I’m one. It’s a list of damned fine writers, though.
I think that reading what I please, and rereading my favorites, has made me an excellent writer. I don’t always pay attention to why these books work for me, even; sometimes I just let them sink in. I do enjoy reading for craft, though—I read bestsellers to see why they work for others. I read books that turn my brain inside out, but not as often as I think I ought to (toddler again). But reading great stories written in gracious style helps me navigate my own work. It helps me learn what I’d love to read.
What book have you reread more than any other?