Sunday 12 January 2020

Reading, reading, reading by Vanessa Harbour

This post was inspired by reading Anne Rooney’s recent blog about her journeys on the bus and how she is using the time to read all sorts of books that she WANTS to read. It made me think – a lot.

It is said you can’t be a writer unless you are a reader. This is something I tell my students frequently, particularly if they comment on how long the reading list might be. I have had some very serious discussions about whether they should be reading a hardcopy (you can make notes in the margin!), an ebook – again you can sort of make comments, or as so many of them do now, listen to the audiobook. I confess I am not convinced about this when trying to analyse a text and trying to explore it critically. But there again, maybe I am a dinosaur.

I spend a huge amount of my time reading and I am not necessarily talking books here. The very nature of the jobs outside my writing means that I need to read reams and reams of pages created by
A selection of work books
my students or the writers I work with. All of which require consideration and feedback, so they are not read to relax. Some can be thoroughly enjoyable, so it is not an issue to read them, others… well... It is not just manuscripts that I need to give feedback on that I read. I also read a lot of books that relate to my work. Not all of which I would choose to read given a choice.

I am also in the lucky position to be sent quite a few books by publishers to read just pre-publication. This is a wonderful opportunity and I love reading them. However, I am aware that I am reading them for a reason. I need to shout about them, to give the writer’s a well-earned nudge in the publicity stakes. We all know how hard it is to publicise your work when you’re an author.  All help is welcome.

What this does mean is that I rarely read just for me. Over Christmas I was thinking about this as I deliberately made the effort to read a couple of books that interested me: Damian Barr’s You Will Be Safe Here and Alice Hoffman’s The World That We Knew. Both books that I had heard a lot of good feedback on, plus I am a great fan of Damian’s Literary Salon podcast, so wanted to read some of his writings. These books relate to nothing I am working on currently. At first, it was hard because I felt guilty. Mad, I know. But I thought I ought to be reading things connected with work. I realised I needed to stop thinking like this, as Anne did for her bus journey, reading books I want to read plus maybe revisiting some old friends could be part of my own self-care.

Reading is so important. We know in children that reading can encourage empathy. Empathy is a key element of emotional intelligence, and part of helping children to appreciate others. I think this can apply to adults too. Reading a book is a chance to walk in someone else’s shoes. To view the world through their eyes. It makes you stop and think. As a writer, it is a wonderful habit to get into as it helps you realise what works for you and what doesn’t. You can then endeavour to apply that to your own writing. Books can be inspirational; they allow you to escape into another world while your brain continues with its latent processing. I often find that the solution to a plot problem will come to me while I am reading. I am sure it is because I am not thinking about it. I acknowledge that the same can happen when ironing or while in the shower or driving.

Revisiting some favourite
My plan this year, which was further inspired by Anne’s post, is to read more that is for me and not connected to work. I plan to try and read a couple of books a month that are my choice. Reading for pleasure. I need to remember this is allowed. These will be both adult and children’s books as I believe in the importance of reading broadly. It is vital not to read only one genre. Push the boundaries, read something outside your comfort zone, it can inform your writing. I will add a caveat, if a book does not hold my attention after a few chapters, I will not fight to the end.  Life is definitely too short to read books you don’t enjoy – I have to do enough of that already!

How about, like Anne, we all challenge ourselves to read more books for ourselves. Happy Reading!

Dr Vanessa Harbour


Nick Garlick said...

This post reminded me of a story Stephen King told, about being asked by a young man how he could get to be a published (successful) writer. 'Well,'King began, 'first you have to read -' The young man interrupted. 'Oh, I haven't got time to read!'

Ness Harbour said...

Nick that sounds familiar. I have had several occasions where people look at me astounded when I suggest to them that they really need to read in order to become a better writer.

Penny Dolan said...

So many reasons to read and often so hard to choose to read purely for yourself, especially when any student's writing is nagging for your attention.

Which makes your 2020 choice/resolution such a good one. Thank you for the wise reminder.

Ness Harbour said...

Thank you Penny, I know it is going to be hard at times. Hopefully, this post will remind me why it is ok to read for myself occasionally.