Reading as a Writer

Reading can be a complicated passion for me. I have been rereading “The Girl’s Guide To Hunting And Fishing,” which is an amazing fiction novel by Melissa Bank and has nothing to do with hunting or fishing. I first read it about ten years ago, and time is on my side when it comes to shopping my own library. I have always been one of those lucky people who can reread books, which is fortunate since I don’t have money to buy all the books I want to read. When I found this book on my shelf and I didn’t remember the first page, I was thrilled. It rides that perfect line for me between being an example of excellent, enviable writing, and a warm, page-turning story.

As a writer, being a reader is an essential part of my identity. But it’s also a very complicated relationship. I judge the books I read as someone writing her own books. And as a lifelong reader, ideally, I’m captivated enough to read uncritically. I love to finish a novel and realize that I never once thought about their sentence construction or subplots.

I kind of hate when I’m reading a book that is so good, so well written, that it’s distracting. Incredible writing can make it hard to get immersed. I’m struck by sentences and read them aloud to my boyfriend. I grow paranoid that I will never write like that, that my style is so different- should I become like this author? Where did they get their MFA? Should I go there? It’s exhausting, which is not what a reading experience is supposed to be like. If a book isn’t that great, I can see the specific holes and problems from the point of view of someone who could fix them, if this was my own book. I imagine changing sentences in a Word document, just as I do with my own manuscript. It’s like when you listen to too many episodes of StoryWonk podcasts and start picking apart the story structure five minutes into an episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. It’s great to have the knowledge, but that’s not going to help you fall asleep at night.

When I turned to the front page of “The Girl’s Guide,” there is a list of reviews from high brow places like The New Yorker and The New York Times. After reading all of them, I could finally articulate why I find this book so amazing. It’s the author’s humor and incredible restraint- or as Newsweek said, “Bank draws exquisite portraits of loneliness, and she can do it in a sentence.” This novel is a coming of age story about a young woman in New York City, which is right up my alley in the first place, yet it is so different from the other books with similar sex-love-relationships stuff  I usually read because of her measured, charming writing. It’s the kind of book that makes me feel like I have good taste, which is a funny thing to say as someone who feels fiercely defensive of YA and women’s lit. Chick lit doesn’t normally get the attention of The New Yorker, even though there are so many talented women’s lit writers that I love. Jennifer Weiner comes to mind first- I just reread one of hers, and it was that great total immersion experience.

Since I am writing full time again (and reaching that third act mark where I have to ruin my lovely protagonist’s life), having a great story to read that also inspires me feels like a touch of magic. I know there are more books like this out there, and probably in the other room on my Ikea bookshelves. Anyone who loves to read knows how uniquely wonderful it feels to be in the middle of a good book. If you have any recommendations, leave me a comment! Let me know if you’re a reader, too!

Now, I think I’m going to get back to my book.



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