Short Saturday: In Love with Reading. And Writing.

We’ve talked a lot here about how reading is good for your writing. I’m sure you’re tired of hearing it; it’s not just me saying it, after all. And all along I’ve had a hard time articulating what the formula is, exactly, that leads from reading well to writing well. But if this delightful NYTimes article isn’t the clearest explanation of why, if you want to write, you should read, I don’t know what is.

“How can you teach someone to master language or read literature until he’s fallen in love with it?” author Dean Bakopoulos asks. I myself fell in love with stories early, so none of this was ever a problem for me. Yet Bakopoulos and his fellow English professors encounter kids who hate to read.

This gives me more than momentary pause. Actually, it makes me a little sick to my stomach.

But Bakopoulos has found a solution. “Maybe in place of first-year composition we should be teaching first-year fiction,” he says. My thoughts exactly!

What they really want is to have some kind of firsthand, visceral relationship with a book—to see what it’s like to take a work apart and put it back together—using great stories as structural models, just the way the kids I grew up with in Detroit fell in love with cars by spending weekends trying to make derelict Ford Mustangs run again. When the engine finally starts, when you figure out how to make it fire, it’s an incredibly powerful learning experience.

Makes sense to me.

In my classes, we read great fiction obsessively, and then attempt to see how a writer managed to affect us. We try to understand which elements—diction, syntax, point of view and so forth—made us feel that way. After we spend several weeks reading this way, wondering how the author made us shiver like that, we try our own hand. I ask students to begin with “green lines,” to isolate writing so good it makes one writer envious of another. Which parts do they wish they had written themselves? Students start to understand how their own writing works, where it ripples with energy.

Oh, yes. I think you’ll enjoy this article. Read it and report back. :)

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4 Comments

  1. I am a firm believer in the power of “gateway” books. One of my children began reading a series of novels she was given by a friend. They were Christian books with abysmal thinking and writing. It hurt me to read them—which I did to check them out—but my girl adored them and they got her through that hurdle of reading books without illustrations. I remembered that almost panicky feeling when I first made the transition from middle readers with illustrations on almost every page, to a novel with only a few illustrations in the entire book. It wasn’t long before I got into the story and never looked back.

    Having another child with a variety of disabilities and a loathing for schooling, who LOVES to read. The boy hates to write but he has been reading, reading, reading his entire life. I have kept him steadily supplied with excellent books, but he has read and loved many terrible ones too. His vocabulary is off the charts—literally, he is tested annually because of one of his disabilities, and he can’t help but be a decent writer. He hates the analytical part of his “Language Arts” classes but always devours the books.

  2. Great link. Got my highlighter out for the line about a “snippet of dialogue or flight of lyricism that exploded in your squirrelly little heart.”

    • Jamie says:

      Hahaha. His two novels haven’t done that well but he writes beautifully! Clearly he’s a good teacher.

  3. […] been talking a lot about reading lately: how important it is for writers to read … what you can learn from reading fiction … books for loved ones who don’t care much for […]

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    […] been talking a lot about reading lately: how important it is for writers to read … what you can learn from reading fiction … books for loved ones who don’t care much for […]