If you want to succeed as a writer, you have to read. All the advice from the experts is the same: Read. Make time for it; enjoy it; learn from it.
Discovering a new author is thrilling; I have to read their entire back catalogue as soon as possible. The excitement I get from reading a truly great book is, funnily enough, beyond words. It’s one of the most satisfying things I know. I couldn’t put it better than Holden Caulfield, J D Salinger’s protagonist in ‘Catcher in the Rye.’
‘What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.”
Obviously, I’m endeavouring to be that special author, but simultaneously I’m a devoted reader and it all takes time, which I never have quite enough of. I wish there were 26 hours in a day and 8 days in a week. I wish I was independently wealthy and didn’t need to go to work – it seriously impedes my writerly progress.
I can still remember the first two books I borrowed from the adult lending library. I must have been about nine years old and had read my way through the entire children’s section. I didn’t know where to start so my mum chose the books for me. She chose well: Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ by Thomas Hardy and John Buchan’s ‘The 39 steps’. Quite an eclectic mix, and Mum almost shot herself in the foot with the Hardy. I was so stunned by the unfairness of the ending that I almost gave up reading there and then. But I got over it and I read the rest of Thomas Hardy back to back; I was hooked. I moved happily through John Steinbeck, F Scott Fitzgerald, Evelyn Waugh, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, all the Brontes, George Orwell and Leo Tolstoy, via Stephen King, Nevil Shute, Daphne du Maurier, Barbara Trapido, Anthony Powell (Books really do furnish a room), Roberston Davies and William Boyd. I haven’t stopped since.
I was a late adopter of crime novels; now I can’t get enough of them. English or American, psychological or police procedural, courtroom dramas, nasty murders in sleepy little villages, horrific serial killings, forensic dissections – I love them all. These days I ration myself, so that only every other book I read is a crime novel. In my memory, they were starting to merge into one single, homogenous crime against humanity. Barbara Vine / Ruth Rendell; Patricia Cornwell; John Grisham; Michael Connelly, Harlan Coben; Peter Robinson; PD James; Kathy Reichs, are all on my favourites list.
I have an abiding interest in the First World War and Vera Brittan’s Testament of Youth and Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogies have been read many times. There’s room too, for the War Poets themselves and The Stranger’s Child, by Alan Holinghurst and Birdsong, by Sebastian Faulks are recent additions.
I used to have shelves groaning under the sheer weight of books but these days I don’t collect in the same way. I don’t have that acquisitive thing going on to the extent that I used to; now I’m content to read and discard, or usually recycle at the local charity shops, and I only keep those books I know I’m going to revisit. Even so, I still squirrel books around the house for guests to read and I have a huge collection in the garage, which is going nowhere fast.
Other readers’ lists of favourites fascinate me and I always find something in them that I want to rush out and buy. Perhaps you’ll share some of yours with me.
The last few years I’ve been very taken with Jim Butcher’s work – both the Dresden Files and his Codex Alera series. It isn’t *great literature*, but they’re superb for entertainment, and in re-reading them I’ve discovered his incredible slight-of-hand foreshadowing I’m now studying for my own work. I’ve never had so many books keep me awake so many nights just to see what happens.
Anyway, that’s my recommendation.
I’ve not come across this guy – he sounds very interesting and he’s now on my list. You’re right – we don’t need great literature all the time and a good page-turner can take us into another world, away from all the niggly problems that beset our lives. And when we analyse it, the writing is usually much cleverer than we realised.