For most of my life I’ve had to snatch away time from the everyday routine to dive into a good book. And for most of my life, I’ve felt guilty about it. Parents and teachers praised my avid interest in reading, but by the time I reached college it wasn’t a hobby anymore. It was one of the driving forces of my life. (My Twitter bio doesn’t say “Obsessed with literature in all forms” for no reason, after all!) But while reading a lot is admired in our culture, it still holds the status of a leisure-time activity.
This is where the guilt comes in.
As writers, we need to be reading. But as writers, we also love to read. And it’s not like we’re voraciously consuming academic journals every day. Sometimes we’re voraciously consuming vampire novels, or spy thrillers, or children’s picture books. It all depends on our forte.
It’s easy to see why some people could mistake this for a leisure-time activity.
The difference is that we are writers. Reading is actually an essential part of our work. Even if we’re striving to write Nobel prize-winning literary fiction, reading the hottest new YA vampire novel still has something to teach us. Every story has something to teach us. And as writers, it’s part of our craft to experience as many stories as we possibly can.
Sometimes you will read a book with a writer’s eye. You’ll pick out plot inconsistencies, admire a particularly deft passage of prose, or take note of an original reworking of a familiar trope. Reading in this conscious, careful way can be enormously helpful when it comes to improving your own skill as a writer. The logical half of your brain studies and absorbs what works and what doesn’t.
However, you don’t need to read every book with your writer’s eye to benefit from it. You can also read the good old-fashioned fun way—barreling through, completely sucked in, emotionally reacting to the characters, to their struggles and to their suffering, and then heaving that satisfied sigh at the end when you turn the last page.
Reading a book as just-a-regular-reader benefits you just as much as a writer.
When you read a book as a reader, the emotionally intuitive, subconscious part of your brain comes out to play. You may not know how the engine works exactly, but you can still drive that car and feel it underneath you, how it handles the road and the way it steers. Writers are like mechanics in this way. As important as it is to learn how to take the machine apart and put it back together again, it is just as essential to slide behind the wheel and take it out for a spin, to get an understanding of how any driver might feel on the road with it.
So the next time you feel guilty for saying no to something else and curling up with a delicious book instead, remind yourself that you are actually working. The fact that you’re having fun while doing it just happens to be a pleasant side effect.
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