Writing Life: Currents of Ideas
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On being a rich and varied reader
For the past few columns, This Writing Life has focused on how to read well, and following that, how what we read affects us. As a writer, I know that I will only be a far-reaching writer if I am also a mature and excellent reader. Why? Because writers are in the business of living stories, and good writing has an effect on people. So part of being a good writer is being affected by good writing. What do you read? Or, to put it another way: what currents of ideas are you swimming in?
As we saw in Input-Output last week, entertainment is sort of a stream: what we read, watch, and listen to is all part of a current that shapes our thoughts, and ultimately, our worldviews. We’re carried along by the ideas in what we experience, and being aware of that can make us better readers. And as growing readers, we want to be injecting ourselves into many different currents of ideas. Camp out in one spot too long, and your worldview may fall into a dangerous riptide: caught in one direction with no tools to escape.
But dip yourself into half a dozen currents, and you can compare them, learn from all of them, and overall round yourself out into a more effective person. When I think of where I want to be reading, there are a few distinct currents that come to mind immediately.
1. Great Books
Great books are books that our culture has decided are worth keeping around because of the enduring insights that they make (think Dickens, Jane Austen, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and the like). Great books are well-written, engaging, and interesting (the Wingfeather Saga, Paul Auster). Great books go beyond one specific group of people and can reach many different people in many different walks of life (Les Miserables is a daunting example).
Why read them? Because thousands of others have, and found something valuable in them. Because I’m a writer, I want to be experiencing many of the things that are broader culture has pronounced worthy of remembering. Need some suggestions for where to start? Try Sense and Sensibility. If you’re feeling brave, tackle some Dostoevsky, one of my personal favorites. Dante’s historical insights into the human condition in Purgatory are well worth your time. Or step into the modern era with two very different authors: C.S. Lewis’ Till we Have Faces, or William Faulkner’s as I lay dying.
2. “Bad” Books
I’ve seen too many Christians turn down books they don’t agree with, but to do so risks locking us into a safe and cleansed environment that doesn’t actually reflect the world we live in. A well-rounded reader will expose himself to viewpoints that he knows he’ll disagree with. Not only is it a chance to strengthen your own viewpoint, making it more robust, but it’s a great way to understand people who are different than you — something the world needs more of. While we need to make the decisions on which books to read with discretion, these books are an excellent way to battle-test good reading skills.
Last year, I tackled Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy specifically for this reason, and also read Larry Niven’s Ringworld earlier in the year, for a similar reason. I’m hoping to hit more in 2016.
3. Excellent books
As a writer, I want to read books that experiment with the English language in ways I’ve not seen before. Something like James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, which stretches the English language and redefines what words are capable of. I want to read writing that has unexpected plot twists and turns that inspire me in my own stories, or stories full of great vocabulary, such as Shakespeare. I want to read books that make me laugh because they’re unexpected, and push and test my own writing.
I was highly motivated to read The Stories we Tell last year, as well as Sol Stein’s How to Grow a Novel in 2014. If you’re something other than a writer, insert your own profession here. As a full-time web developer, I also want to be reading some of the latest and greatest for my profession. Inject yourself into what other people like you are saying, to grow and continue learning.
4. The Book
Finally, as a writer who is written, I want everything I am to be undergirded by the Bible. It’s one of my resolutions to grow in 2016, and just think about it: if we’re so shaped by what we read, why wouldn’t the Bible form the foundation of it all?
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and the very words of God have been handed down to us perfectly, without any flaws and directly from the pens of those who wrote them. Even if you have half a dozen other currents flowing through your mind each month, let the Bible be the story that makes up your lifeblood, rich and full and life-giving. It’s the greatest story that’s written, and it’s the story we are all a part of.
Let all the literary richness of the Psalms and the prophets fill your descriptions, and may all the crazy true events undergird your plots. We are people of The Word, after all. Be shaped by it, and let all your other currents flow from that biggest story.