David Louis Edelman David Louis Edelman

Writing Has Killed My Desire to Read

I can’t tell you whether I prefer Ian McEwan’s recent novel Saturday to his prior effort, Atonement. I can’t comment on whether John Banville’s The Sea deserved the Booker Prize (though I can tell you that his older work The Book of Evidence was certainly Bookerworthy). I don’t know if The Plot Against America continues Philip Roth’s unprecedented streak of literary home runs that began with 1997’s American Pastoral.

Why? Because I haven’t read any of these books.

The truth is that ever since I got serious about writing, my desire to read has taken a serious nosedive. I used to run through novels at the rate of two or three a week — but since late 2000 I’m lucky if I can get through two a month.

You used to see me carting a novel and a dictionary with me just about anywhere I went. Not to denigrate the pleasures of pulp fiction, but the kind of stuff that I used to indulge in was heavyweight material in both tone and physical bulk. Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, Richard Powers, Philip Roth, Paul Auster, John Steinbeck, Franz Kafka. At the end of every year, I could consult the critics’ best-of picks and have an intelligent opinion about most of them.

Compare that with my current reading habits. I picked up Alfred Bester’s classic The Demolished Man (winner of the first Hugo Award) almost a month ago. Not to denigrate the talents of Mr. Bester, but this book is a one- or two-nighter. Yet I can’t seem to finish the fucker. I’ll pick it up, read a chapter or two, then put it down for a week or more. I’ve had the same stack of books sitting on my side table for half a year now, untouched: China Miéville’s Iron Council, L. Frank Baum’s Patchwork Girl of Oz, Robert Wright’s Nonzero, J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace. I finally gave up on Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell because, well, I found the whole thing meandering and pointless.

What happened? I wish I knew.

Does writing scratch the same itch that reading does? I’m starting to think so. After all, when you write a word down, you’re reading it too — in many cases three, four or five times. In some ways, it’s a much richer experience. As a writer you become intimately involved with those words, you chew them over and examine them from angles that you might gloss over in someone else’s work.

What you lose by concentrating on your own words, of course, is a sense of interaction with the outside world. You get caught in an echo chamber. Eventually your own work will suffocate.

Any other writers out there who have experienced this phenomenon? Anyone with good suggestions?

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  1. Michael Jasper on January 17, 2006 at 12:31 pm  Chain link

    I have the same exact problem.

    I wonder if the reason you suddenly slowed down was that you jumped from reading “literary” fiction to reading the same genre in which you were writing — SF and fantasy.

    As a result, you’re probably taking more mental notes as you read each word, saying “How’d he do that?” or “That was cool, I wanna try that!” or other such things.

    That’s what happened to me — I stopped reading fiction for pleasure and started reading as a writer. For me, I just had to turn off the analytical part of my brain and read for enjoyment again. And hope that the cool writing techniques sink into my unconscious. Because a writer HAS to read.

    Great site! I’ll keep an eye out for your book (hopefully I’ll get through my To Be Read pile before yours comes out!).

  2. David Louis Edelman on January 17, 2006 at 9:01 pm  Chain link

    I think you might be partly right, Michael. I do feel like I’m reading differently now that I’ve got a novel under my belt.

    It’s funny, but I never felt like I read for enjoyment. Oh, sure, the good books were enjoyable, but it always seemed like the purpose behind it was something different — self-growth, discovery, enlightenment, I dunno. Maybe that’s my problem.

    Thanks for the compliment on the site! And you’ve still got six months to get through the To Be Read pile before my book comes out — plenty of time!

  3. Bethanne on January 20, 2006 at 5:35 pm  Chain link

    This isn’t from a writer’s standpoint, just from someone who likes to read. When I can’t get into any of the books in my to-be-read stack, I read something by a Japanese author. I find them by either looking up “banana” under author in amazon.com and checking the “pople who bought this also liked that” or looking under “Y” in fiction at the bookstore. A disproportionate number of the authors with a last name starting with Y are Asian. Banana Yoshimoto is a young Japanese writer, and apparently no one else has the name Banana. :-)

    Western books tend to be action oriented with internal changes as a secondary concern. The reverse is true of the Japanese books. Sometimes they barely even discuss what’s actually happening around the subject. You’ll have to read one to really understand. Yukio Mishima is a classic. Also, no one bothers to translate the crap, so the books are generally all pretty good.

  4. David Louis Edelman on January 21, 2006 at 11:07 am  Chain link

    My one experience with Banana Yoshimoto wasn’t a particularly good one, as my review of her book Lizard states.

    I am, however, a big fan of Haruki Murakami. Maybe I’ll try picking up his latest and see if that helps.

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