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29 January 2016 | Reading

Reading widely

Pile of books on a black background

I went to a fabulous seminar at Writers Victoria this week, presented by Danielle Binks about reading widely for writers. It may seem a little odd to think that writers need a tutorial about reading, because after all, if you write books, then it must surely follow that you read books and would hardly need to be told how to do so. Yet as Danielle explained, writers usually fall into two categories of readers – we either read only in our own genre or read too narrowly within our own genre.

When I look back on my reading list for last year, I can see that I read mainly middle grade fiction, adult fiction that would probably be classified as women’s fiction, a little bit of young adult fiction, and non-fiction about creativity and parenting. So plenty of room to add crime fiction, science fiction, fantasy, biographies, autobiographies, historical fiction.  And even though there is so much room for improvement in this area, I think I need to read more widely in middle grade fiction, for 8-12 year-old readers.

I love my monthly bookclub meetings – mainly for the lovely friendships but also because I read books that I haven’t heard of before.

And why, you may ask, is all this important? Well, Danielle explained that if you only read in your own genre, you will never break beyond it, you will only be a pale imitation of the best writers in your field. Seems to me that it is true in any field.

I remember watching Australian Story a couple of years ago and seeing Professor Graeme Clark, who invented the cochlear implant, explain how he came across his brilliant idea. He was sitting on a beach, turning over a shell in his hand and observing how blades of grass were flexible enough to reach all the way inside it. He could see how similar the shell was to an ear, and he knew then how to solve the last piece of the puzzle. If he had stayed in his lab, ignoring the beach, he would not have changed the lives of thousands of deaf people.

Back to reading and writing – how can you write an original book if you are living and breathing the narrow world of your genre?

I think reading widely is true for kid readers, too. One of the greatest gifts reading can give anyone is a sense of compassion. You can understand the deaf protagonist’s perspective, you live the life of the athlete who was never quite good enough, you become the mother living hundreds of years ago who lost half her babies in childbirth, you understand the protagonist who was brought up by an alcoholic father. For kids, reading can offer insights into the home life of a school bully, into the feelings of the kid who can never keep up at school, into the thoughts of the kid who is never invited to parties. And if you read the same sort of book all the time, your world is narrow, and your compassion is limited.

So, I intend to read more widely this year to become not only a better writer but a more compassionate person! Anyone else have any reading plans for yourself or your kids this year? Or a book recommendation to help me read more widely?

 

You don’t have to finish reading a book

14 Comments

Pam

Reading opens many windows. Variety certainly broadens the mind.

January 29, 2016 at 7:45 am

Carolyn

We do like to stay inside our comfort zone, don’t we? And it’s understandable because we want to enjoy what we are reading so are hesitant to take the risk of trying something else. I am trying to read a little more non- fiction. I’ve always like a ‘story’ but feel my intellect could go with a bit of a boost! Last year I read Madness: A memoir (http://irisandedie.com/2015/11/02/have-you-read-madness-a-memoir-by-kate-richards/) which is quite confronting but certainly opens the eyes to what it is like to live with mental illness. I also read How to Create the Perfect Wife by Wendy Moore which is about Thomas Day’s endeavours to, as the title suggests, create the perfect wife. This in itself is interesting but also the way in which it touches on other aspects of history – the push for American independence and the educational philosophies of the time (late 1700s).

January 29, 2016 at 2:27 pm

    Karen Comer

    Carolyn, I’m always interested to hear what you’re reading. Now I know you were impressed by ‘Madness, I’ll borrow it from the library. Great book review – thanks for sharing! As for the perfect wife, maybe my self-esteem would deflate if I read that title!

    January 29, 2016 at 4:39 pm

Danielle Binks

Thank you very much Karen, glad you enjoyed it (and sorry – not sorry – for the newly inflated ‘To Be Read’ pile!)

Happy Writing & Happier Reading!

January 29, 2016 at 4:25 pm

Matthew C Lamb

Great article, Karen. Sound advice, and some interesting specific titles to check out as well.

I use a friends reading group as a benchmark. They have eight very different readers with diverse preferences, and each month they rotate choice of book between them (old, new, non-fiction, genre fiction – everything). I read along in parallel and it is gas subatomic! As a writer it is particularly valuable to read their wide-ranging choices, and even more valuable to find out what they liked (and didn’t like), and why.

Keep up the good work.

January 30, 2016 at 8:56 am

Deborah

I’m the same Karen in that I need to read more widely. I think I’ve improved a lot on where I was a few years ago, but there’s still a lot more genres and authors I could be reading.

Having said that I still want to read predominantly for enjoyment so I’d always put a book aside if I wasn’t enjoying it; or skip something that didn’t appeal at all, but… it’s part of my new year’s resolutions – that I broaden my reading horizons!

PS. The workshop sounds good!

January 31, 2016 at 1:27 pm

Karen Comer

Yes, I think life is too short to read a poorly-written book, especially when there are so many good books out there. I’m sure you are keeping your NY’s resolution – your blog is prolific with book reviews, Deborah!

January 31, 2016 at 7:49 pm

Helen K

Good points, Karen. My book club (at least, one of them – I’m in two), is very expansive in its spread of books, much more so than I would be (possibly because one of our members is a librarian). So they set challenges – selecting books set in different destinations (ie.http://www.readings.com.au/news/around-the-world-in-25-books), covering some different genres as identified in this book challenge- as well as reading from long lists for the Booker, Orange, Pulitzer, Stella, etc, awards. Of course, we can’t read them all (I for one can’t keep up), but it certainly has broadened my reading. Hopefully these lists give you some ideas for more diverse reading, too!

February 4, 2016 at 9:13 pm

    Karen Comer

    Fabulous links, Helen – thank you so much for sharing them. And yes, awards are also a great way to broaden your reading!

    February 4, 2016 at 9:27 pm

A. Suiter Clarke

Hi Karen!

I’m very passionate about reading widely, as you know. I’ve found that using Pop Sugar’s reading challenge checklists is very useful since they suggest types of books rather than genres or titles. Good luck, and I look forward to seeing more from you!

February 12, 2016 at 8:04 am

    Karen Comer

    I’ve seen your Pop Sugar list, Amy – it seems open enough so that it’s not too restrictive. I really like to read books of my own choosing! Might have to try it for next year, after following you again this year.

    February 12, 2016 at 9:01 am

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