Tuesday, December 9, 2008

We read too much. We don’t read enough.

The revision process is getting easier -- although I’m still cutting words like mad. With all I've learned, the second time around should go much more smoothly. Yes, there will be a second book – someday. Speaking of what I've learned, I wanted to talk about one challenge I've grappled with this year: too much information. The amount of information and writing instruction out there is overwhelming. I suppose that’s why people go to school: sure, you could learn it all on your own, but sometimes you need someone to whittle the info for you.

I won’t even go into all the non-fiction books on writing. Lately, I’ve stopped reading them altogether because 1) they slow me down and make me doubt myself; and 2) once I’d read a few, I found they all say basically the same things. No, I want to talk about fiction. I still try to read fiction every night for pleasure and relaxation. But since I’m also writing fiction, my writing will inevitably be influenced by what I’m reading. I need to be a little more careful about which books I pick up. So, even though I own dozens of books I haven’t read yet – and I have one of the country's best public libraries in my backyard -- lately I’ve been re-reading books I’ve already read.

These re-reads fall into two categories: 1) books where I loved the prose so much I want to read it again for enjoyment and emulation (Lolita, The Shipping News, All the Pretty Horses); and 2) top-notch suspense books which I hope will teach me how to write a great thriller (The Silence of the Lambs, A Simple Plan). By re-reading these books with a critical eye, I’ve gotten more out of them than I would reading a new book -- and it’s still pleasure-reading. Two books with one stone, or something like that.

Now, I haven't really tested this, but I bet the same holds true for all those self-help and business books on our shelves. At my previous job, I attended so many excellent training sessions and was given countless reference materials, but I rarely had time to go back and look at them. What if I’d taken less training, read less, but re-read more and actually learned?

Timothy Ferriss, in his book The 4-Hour Workweek (overall, it’s a pretty ridiculous book, but it has a few gems), talks about going on an “information diet.” When reading non-fiction, or “self-help” books, we could do well to heed Tim’s advice:

Develop the habit of asking yourself, "Will I definitely use
this information for something immediate and important?"
It's not enough to use information for "something"—it needs to be
immediate and important. If "no" on either count, don't consume
it. Information is useless if it is not applied to something
important or if you will forget it before you have a chance to
apply it.

But my favorite tip is to practice what he calls “the art of nonfinishing." I've started to do this more and more this year. Tim sums it up best:

If you are reading an article [or book] that sucks, put it down 
and don't pick it back up. If you go to a movie and it's worse than The
Matrix Revolutions
, get the hell out of there before more neurons
Die … More is not better, and stopping something is often 10 times
better than finishing it. Develop the habit of
nonfinishing that
which is boring or unproductive if a boss isn't demanding it.

Now, you don't need to read The 4-Hour Workweek. I’ve already summed up the two best points. Go back and re-read one of your favorites.

1 comment:

  1. lolita is so beautifully written. there are sentences in the book that i still think about now and then. i think i will re-read it...