Why I Read

MikeachimLiterature, Writing21 Comments


I read because I’d be a bloody awful writer if I didn’t.

I read because all the writers I admire are clearly better at writing than I am – and most of the time, beyond the most obvious metrics (where they get published; how many books they sell) it’s not immediately obvious why. I love reading things that floor me with their brilliance, and I hate it too, because they’re a form of magic. They work on me in ways I don’t understand, ignoring the laws I cling to, bewildering me into a stunned, brow-furrowed “How…HOW..?” As a reader, I love feeling like that; as a writer, it’s agony. I want to know how to do it too! Or – correction – I want to understand what it takes to be able to write like that, to see how a fellow human being could think and express themselves in that way, given time, experience, bravery, reckless creativity and astounding amounts of hard work. Magicians anger me. Oh Come On, I yell at the page, You Breathe The Same Air, Dammit. And the only way to get a feel for how truly magical writing is created is to read it, read it, read it until you’re starting to think the same way. You need to learn the grammar of magic before you can cast your own spells.

I read because I love being outwitted by people who seem to know how I expect stories to end. (Bastards.)

I read because people are smart. The best way to really grasp how smart people are is to read a lot of their words. Brevity is admirable. Boil it down to 140 characters? Yay for challenge. But there is a hard limit on the amount of complexity you can deliver in a tweet, in a 500 word blog post, in a page of text. Some people write huge chunks of text because they’re windbags (I often suspect I’m one of them) – but some people write long because they think deep, and that’s the only way to fit it all in without losing anything. There are more of these people in the world than the average Internet junkee would like you to believe.

I read because I’m training myself to read. I’m also training myself to think. When you read something that is both long and tightly written, it trains your brain, not just for strength (which you can get from those blog posts, tweets, etc.) but for stamina. Longform is cardio. This is why I have my phone’s Evernote filled with articles from Longreads, Byliner and the like, and why I try to read at least a couple a day. Following an argument through 5,000, 10,000, 50,000 words is something of a marathon, but it’s good for your brain. You will learn new skills from having that burden laid upon your mind, and you will toughen up. You’ll also appreciate good editing when you read a few clunkers. It’s all good.

I read because I’m out of touch. Most days, I’m in my own little world, juggling freelance writing work, trying to get out the house despite the weather, chewing my lip over my finances, working out what to do next, and trying to hack through client work so I can get to the writing I love best. I’m not travelling right now. It’s lonely – but in a self-obsessed rather than angsty way. I love listening. I get sick of hearing my own thoughts as they whirl around like my brain is on a spin cycle. I need input as much as I need to output. And the world is a marvellous place, filled with wonders every single day. I’m sat there editing something for someone, and on the other side of the world a freaking meteor is exploding over Russia, making one of the loudest noises in human history. I read about it on BBC News, and spend 2 hours with my jaw on the floor, mesmerized by the videos as they go up. To read is to have a love-affair with the world. I’m besotted.

I read because I still don’t know enough about the world, and reading is the quickest, cheapest and second most enjoyable way of addressing that. Reading is training for becoming a good, well-rounded, well-adjusted human being. (Well, usually.)

I read because it’s like mind-reading, and I’m super-nosy.

I read because my brain can’t tell the difference between fiction and reality.

I read because I write. If I had my shit together, I’d read half the time, write half the time – that’s the golden ratio. I don’t have my shit together. (Yet.) That’s the lifestyle I want, balanced with a good dollop of outdoorsy living. That’s what I’m chasing. That’s what I want.

And I read because you write.

But mainly, I read because I love words, wherever they are.

Image: markcbrennan

  • Oh man. Brevity is not something a lot of people can master.Since I’ve started my 52-book challenge, my creativity has skyrocketed. I’m shocked. I find the flow of words just comes more naturally. You cannot be a writer if you do not READ!

    • So you’re about 10 books in at this point? What titles have you picked? Anything strategic, ie. “I would give my sainted grandmother over to the lowest daemon of Perdition to be able to write like that, so maybe if I read lots of it, it’ll rub off on me”? (Not that you need any help in the writing department, frankly, but it’s always fun to see what writers aspire to).

      • I am! My reading list is here: http://www.goodreads.com/user_challenges/590860I had to pick a lot of short novels, actually. A few poetry books for the road. But I just finished “The World According to Garp,” which is a beast of a book. It was my first Irving book EVER…I’m ashamed to say so. Blew me away.

  • Sharon Miro

    OK, so how much do I like your stuff? I went ot another computer and downloaded Chrome to get here, that’s how much.

    Anyway…sometimes good writing will make my heart beat so fast I have to put the book down and walk away. It can make me feel like I will shatter, and that’s scary.

    And I get jealous.

    • I tried testing the site in both Firefox and Internet Explorer, but couldn’t see anything amiss…still having problems with them? Let me know and I’ll look into it!

      And thank you. :)

      And yep with the heart-beating. When I read things that really, fully resonate with me, my nervous system goes a little strange, as if someone shot me full of caffeine and something illegal. I want to run down the street, banging on doors, telling people about it…

      I think that’s what writing is supposed to do to us, and when it doesn’t, it hasn’t entirely fulfilled its potential.

  • Some of what you said, it’s as if you were reading my mind, especially that 6th paragraph…..except for one thing – you totally underestimate your own talent, totally.

  • Thanks for introducing me to Byliner, I love reading but struggle finding the time these days (for novels especially) with full-time job, little toddler and lots of travel & outdoors thrown in the mix. Looks like there are plenty of interesting short(ish) stories to read in Byliner. Yihuu!

    • Thanks for reading! Byliner, Longreads and Longform are all fantastic (and free!) resources for finding quality reading…

      If you have a smartphone of any kind, try getting hold of either Evernote or Pocket – there are various plugins (especially in Chrome) that allow you to send an article with one click over to your phone for offline reading. Here’s how it works with Evernote:


      Warning: it can get a little bit out of hand if you don’t keep up with the articles you store. (My friend Cheri has just written a post on the dangers of this: http://writingthroughthefog.com/2013/03/09/on-unorganized-consumption/ ).

  • Amen. I love to read, too. It’s a form of escape, to a distant land and/or a distant time. It’s also extremely inspirational. I believe that to truly understand the current world around us we must read about our past. And I make it a habit and a joy to do so.

    What are some of your favorite books? The ones that really get inside of you?

    • That’s the key word I’m chasing – “habit”. My reading has too often been something I’ve squeezed into my spare time, rather than being an active component of my job. I’m trying to change all that right now…

      The books that keep returning again and again right now:

      – Alain de Botton’s “The Art Of Travel”
      – “Uncertainty” – Jonathan Fields
      – “Journey Into Cyprus” – Colin Thubron
      – “The Grapes Of Wrath” – Steinbeck (which has taken up permanent residence in part of my brain – and my obsession with HBO’s “Carnivale” didn’t exactly help matters)
      – “The Ascent Of Rum Doodle” – W.E.Bowman (agonisingly funny)
      – “A Field Guide To Getting Lost” – Rebecca Solnit

      ….and probably a lot more besides. I’m inwardly cluttered at the moment.

      How about you, Angela?

      • Great list. I have never read “The Grapes Of Wrath,” not even in high school. I’ll add it to my list. And “A Field Guide To Getting Lost” sounds great.

        The two greatest books of all time that I’ve read are:
        – River of Doubt by Candice Millard
        – The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand

        These books were so great that it was very difficult to get into any other book after reading them. They are very different, one non-fiction the other fiction, and moved me in different ways. Check them out!

  • Not sure that kind of magic can be learned.

    I do know that freelance writing for clients usually doesn’t enhance creativity and eventually numbs your excitement with words (your own words, not others’). It’s not work you look back on years later with pride.

    You’re not a windbag. You do have a bit of a wand tucked inside that cloak.

  • Oh, Yes. This is why I read, too – to absorb the world, and think about it…and, eventually, write. :)

  • That is also why I read!
    Thanks for this great article.
    Oh, by the way, you definitely underestimate yourself.

  • Jimbo

    I’ll put you down for a copy of my 100K word tome then. You can marvel at the additional 20K words of bibliography as well.

  • Without reading, no writers, no writers, no readers… This and your thoughts on learning through reading is really striking me at the moment as reading ‘Team of Rivals’ . Only in the first chapters but emphasises how much reading was done by Lincoln and all his rivals in their quest for knowledge.

  • I currently share a similar sentiment with you – splitting up reading and writing 50/50, hoping to work my way up towards four hours per day, per Stephen King’s advice.

    I’m sitting at about 20/80 at the moment. Almost halfway!

    Do you find yourself reading similar genres to improve your focus? Meaning classics for a month, then non-fiction, then memoirs, etc. Or is it just whatever suits your fancy in the present moment?

  • I really relate to this piece. Especially this:

    I read because I’m out of touch. Most days, I’m in my own little world, juggling freelance writing work, trying to get out the house despite the weather, chewing my lip over my finances, working out what to do next, and trying to hack through client work so I can get to the writing I love best.

    … and this:

    If I had my shit together, I’d read half the time, write half the time

    This year I’m trying to read 30 books. I should be reading a lot more, and I hate spending time doing other things when I could be buried in a good book.

  • And I am so glad you wrote this and I read it. “I read because you write.” “I read because I write.”
    Heck! It’s thrilling to be outwitted by people who know how exactly the story will end.

    As to the balance you mentioned about reading and outdoorsy living, if you ever achieve it, tell me how, buddy. Walcott said it for us, ‘I read. I travel. I become.’

  • Enjoyed that post, Mike. Thanks – and look forward to meeting you in Rotterdam. And less of the ‘I can’t write very well’ nonsense. You can.