Perhaps the best writing advice was given to me by a mentor of mine and I still reflect on his words to this day. Along with being a Licensed Medical Doctor he has a masters in French literature and is an ardent lover of the classics. When I expressed my love of language and my affair with the written word, he advised me,
“If you want to write, READ. Not just anything, read the great works! There is more art and more wisdom in those pages, that will hone your writing implement than anything else in the world.’”
I had a few classics under my belt thanks to high school and college English courses, but I wouldn’t consider myself a citizen of that hallowed society of literary devotees. I got online and began searching for things like “best books of all time” and “classic books everyone must read before they die” or “classic literature that every writer should read.” I quickly found that there were hundreds if not thousands of lists of recommendations and that everyone’s idea of what should be included in the “great works” was a little bit different.
Thanks to my mother’s intense passion for reading I had grown up with the smell of Chaucer’s bookstore embedded deeply into my olfactory. Upon entering the front door, I breathed in the millions of pages, I closed my eyes and I felt as if I could hear all of their contents simultaneously whispered into the very air. The sticky residue of the internet search melted away and I knew I could walk up to the help desk and receive sage wisdom from a literary vet that would guide me in my quest.
“I want to read all of the best books ever written,” I said. He laughed and I got the feeling this wasn’t the first time he had been confronted with this request. He leads me to the back wall that had a white sign in calligraphy that read “Classics”.
I scanned the spines of the books upon the wall; some of the authors and titles I was familiar with and others I wasn’t. I felt overwhelmed by the task ahead of me and perplexed at where I should begin. I took out my phone and once again started searching for lists and suggestions hoping that I could rely on someone else to arrange my goal for me.
The same employee that had shepherded me into the literary abyss I now found myself in returned to check on my progress. He could see the worry and confusion painted across my face. I asked him, “Where do I start?” He replied sagely, “One book at a time.”
Ok, I could do this. Reading was always a passion and I could devour books like snacks, so all I had to do was prepare a menu. It just so happened to be January and I had a resolution-like insight: I would choose 8 books for the year, knowing that I would end up reading a few “popcorn” bestsellers as well.
I ended up choosing six classic books pre-1900 and two modern classics. I lined them up on my bedside table and simply peered at them for a few days. I would like to say that I easily plowed through my haul one book after another but that simply wasn’t the case. I experienced ebbs and flows and major lulls in my momentum. I would power through one book only to pick up another and put it down and repeat this process several times. At a certain point last year, I had about four books I was simultaneously toying with, just barely dipping my toes into the first couple chapters and then shifting my focus back to another, like a cat with too many mice. Often it took weeks to sink my teeth in and really engage and commit to finishing one book. There have even been instances that I opted to listen to the audio version of a book as I found it a good way to reach my goal while exercising or driving, and then I would read a print version of another book on my list simultaneously. There is much debate as to the actual intimacy with the language that one is exposed to by listening rather than reading, and for the most part I am of the camp that prefers holding a book in your hands and reading the text with your own eyeballs, but I have found a few Audible exclusives by incredible readers that I was very satisfied with. In particular, Jane Eyre read by Thandie Newton, an incredible British actress hailed for her talent on Westworld. As a celebration for finishing I always like to find a film adaptation and watch the movie version as a kind of culmination to the journey I’ve taken with that author and to further inscribe the stories upon my heart. I’ve really enjoyed most of the BBC’s classic film adaptations and, although some are quite old and outdated, they still do a really great job of staying true to the text.
This goal-oriented approach to reading can be adopted for any genre: non-fiction, fantasy, self-help, poetry and more. If you desire mastery or authority over a certain subject then try to make it an annual goal to read a portion of the notable works in that area.
What I’ve enjoyed most about this endeavor is knowing that I always have a good book in my queue, and no matter how I end up completing my yearly goal, or even if I don’t end up completing it, I have formed this working relationship/love affair with my books that I feel is a consistent source of enrichment. At times it can be frustrating or daunting, but what I get back from the pages is priceless. From these novels, I glean critical insights into human nature, masterpiece prose that speak to my soul, spellbinding stories that steal me into their world, and all I have to do to reap the invaluable rewards of great literature is to take it in one book at a time.