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writer, reader (a 49 Writers blog post)


My first real job was teaching kindergarten in New Mexico. From the highway, Newcomb is a gas station, a school, and some teacher housing. Only flickering house lights under night skies reveal the trailers flung out for miles across the mesa.

It was two hours roundtrip to the nearest public library, a drive I made weekly to load the car with books for my classroom. Sharing the wonder of all those stories was one of the best things about teaching. I don’t want to think about how much of my salary went toward Farmington Public Library fines those years.

Now I work in a college library, surrounded by more than I could read in a lifetime. And yet I’d still rather not think about how much of my salary goes toward buying books.

The other day when I asked my husband about adding some bookshelves upstairs he said, “Every time I build new shelves you just fill them up with more books.”

I reminded him it’s my responsibility as a writer to buy and promote the works of other authors. I didn’t mention that thanks to Alaska Book Week recommendations in the Juneau Empire and Alaska Dispatch in October, I’ve added a whole new batch of Alaska titles to my wish list.

Neil Gaiman recently gave a Reading Agency lecture in support of libraries and spoke of our obligation to read aloud to our children, “to do the voices, to make it interesting, and not to stop reading to them just because they learn to read to themselves.”

He quoted Albert Einstein’s answer on how to raise smart children. “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales,” Einstein said, “If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”

Such advice reassures the mom in me. But not necessarily the writer, who has heard over and over that if you want to be an author you need to “read, read, read,” but isn’t sure that Where’s Waldo? counts.

My reading list these days is dictated by two little boys, so it’s heavy on Seuss and snakes and chapter books about giants, cowdogs, and eating worms. I don’t mind. Especially on summer nights when sunlight floods their bedroom at 10 p.m., I’m happy to read chapter after chapter, knowing it’s a luxury we won’t have during winter months of early dinners and darkness and school night bedtimes.

Meanwhile, my own book stacks grow faster than houseplants, reminding me how MANY things I want to read, and I’m always trying to fit too much into my short windows of time. I play audiobooks in the car, even though Kodiak’s limited road system and lack of traffic or stoplights necessitates ‘reading’ audiobooks in five minute segments spread out over months. I carry three books to the bathtub, four to bed, and pack half a dozen for a weekend trip. I find myself reading as fast as I can, skimming to get to the end.

Binge reading means I can stand in front of a bookstore or library shelf and recognize various titles I’ve read without being able to pull up details of plot or characters.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.”

While I’d like to believe in a kind of literary osmosis, I’m not sure that I’m reading deliberately enough to absorb anything into my own writing. I read like a manic beachcomber, shoving shiny words and images into crowded pockets, worrying that I’ve overlooked something significant.

“The more you read, the better you write. That’s just self evident,” says Anthony Horowitz.

That sounds good, but how important is the what and the how of reading when it comes to transference? Would slowing down, or reading with pen in hand and making time for reflection help my reading feel less compulsive and more cohesive?

In Sven Birkerts’ The Gutenberg Elegies, he writes that all acts of creation are “an arranging and interpreting of the given. Not so much a bringing-into-being as a recovering of what is in some way already known. The writer, then, places himself in a condition of silent receptivity.”

When we sit down to create a scene, “We research our sense memories, applying our attentiveness inward with the same diligence we would apply to the reading of a difficult text…We must, for we cannot have all of the images and sensations we need at our command at once; memory works by association, by accumulation, and by unconscious reconstruction.”

I’ve resolved to read more conscientiously, to pay attention to the confluence of my reading and writing.

But I’ve also decided to trust that all of this is what makes me—the hour reading aloud at the foot of the bunk bed because I believe in the power of stories to nurture imagination and empathy in my boys, mixing pumpkin into pancake batter at midnight because I believe holidays should start with a special breakfast, while this unfinished blog piece rolls through my thoughts and I try to puzzle out what exactly I’m looking for every time I open another book. It’s that one sentence or image or paragraph that reminds me why I wanted to be a writer in the first place and why I will always be a reader—to move or be moved by a quiet truth so masterfully written it becomes a revelation worth sharing and savoring and seeking out, a place to begin.