Writers are always told they ought to read more: to learn the rules, to understand the language better, to figure out which stories work and which don’t. As Stephen King notes, you need to “read widely, and constantly work to refine and redefine your own work as you do so.”
Yet is there a greater power literature has that can help improve a writer’s skills? Something that goes beyond a simple ‘monkey see; monkey do’ instruction tool?
German born poet, novelist, and painter Herman Hesse touched upon this power in a 1920 essay simply titled ‘on reading books’. Arguing that reading books helps spark something within our minds that other form of media fail to do, he suggests that the act of reading helps improve our associative thinking that turns the reading material into a springboard for indiscriminate curiosity from which to leap far beyond the particular substance of the particular book. He writes:
“At the hour when our imagination and our ability to associate are at their height, we really no longer read what is printed on the paper but swim in a stream of impulses and inspirations that reach us from what we are reading.”
Reading, then, can spark a person’s imagination in such a way that genuinely new and unique ideas can flourish. Just as solitary exercise can stimulate the creative energy required to produce original pieces of work (as we’ve detailed here), reading is important to writing, because it opens channels. It expands our potential and helps us grow – to better understand the world. Our minds are free to linger on thoughts they otherwise would not; in a kind of simulated – but nonetheless stimulating – solitude that helps us better understand who we are, at our very deepest levels, as human beings.
As US President Theodore Roosevelt opined when asked whether he saw there to be any ‘rules’ for the act of reading himself:
“[We] all need more than anything else to know human nature, to know the needs of the human soul; and they will find this nature and these needs set forth as nowhere else by the great imaginative writers, whether of prose or of poetry.”
Intriguingly, though reading is a solitary act, it can make a person feel less alone. As Rebecca Solnit writes in her essay ‘Flight’:
“Like many others who turned into writers, I disappeared into books when I was very young, disappeared into them like someone running into the woods. What surprised and still surprises me is that there was another side to the forest of stories and the solitude, that I came out that other side and met people there. Writers are solitaries by vocation and necessity. I sometimes think the test is not so much talent, which is not as rare as people think, but purpose or vocation, which manifests in part as the ability to endure a lot of solitude and keep working. Before writers are writers they are readers, living in books, through books, in the lives of others that are also the heads of others.”
If it is true that the most important qualities to be a writer are imaginative ability, intelligence, and focus, reading avidly helps curate and foster these skills. Yet in the process of reading so much, we can step beyond simply doing what we ought to be doing, and discover more about the world; and also ourselves.