Reading Fitness

A lot of attention is paid to physical fitness at this time of year. However, I think it’s important to remember that bookworms and casual readers alike also need to stay fit when it comes to reading.

As a working writer, I’m always trying to stay aware of the market, which means a certain amount of reading within the trendy stuff.

For example, the YA/new adult market currently favors first-person viewpoint, present verb tense, multiple viewpoints, flashbacks, extremely short chapters, page breaks between scenes, simple sentences, etc.

Those elements are aimed at producing a rapid, easy-to-read story that can be read in short bursts of attention without loss of comprehension.

But it’s like deciding to stop cooking from scratch and only nuking frozen dinners in the microwave. After a while, you may find you’ve lost the knack of stirring a roux or prioritizing the tasks necessary to set a three-course dinner on the table with everything timed correctly.

You shouldn’t ONLY read for your target market. You shouldn’t ONLY read books written in the past five years. By the same token, you shouldn’t read ONLY 19th-century classics if your ambition is to write for today’s mystery crowd.

Maybe this is an obvious point, this suggestion to take a more eclectic approach, but in my busy life I tend to forget and overlook obvious things. Don’t you?

For example, in the past three weeks I’ve read four recently published novels (Charles Todd, Paolo Bacigalupi, Scott Westerfeld, Karen White), one published in the 1990s (Lois McMaster Bujold), and one published in 1953 (Theodore Sturgeon). The book from the ’90s made me blink in surprise at how the pace seemed slightly slower than the modern stuff. The book was NOT boring or tedious, but neither was it frantic. Bujold took time to describe the setting–not at length, not in a boring way, but just enough for me to have a good sense of place. I felt I was there, and I enjoyed it.

Sturgeon’s book also caught me by surprise. It served up omniscient viewpoint, with more narrative and description than dramatized scenes. Oh, yes, I thought. I used to read more books like this when I was a kid. I’d forgotten.

Would I want more of it? Not much. I like scenes better than narrative, but Sturgeon held my attention and I enjoyed the story he gave me.

His 1950s book dealt with some pretty grim issues of disability, abuse, and child neglect, but the worst stuff happened off-stage and not splat! right in my face. Bacigalupi–by contrast–crammed brutality, beastiality, and horror right down my throat, leaving almost nothing to my imagination.

Sturgeon was also refreshing in that he bothered to write well. The book wasn’t long, and the plot was decidedly odd, but the characters were vivid, the theme strong, and the sentences flowed with a beauty that didn’t shout, “Look at how poetic I am!” but nevertheless reflected the care and thought he put into them.

I’ll never choose style over a good story, but give me both and I’ll follow you a long way.

Last summer, I fell into the tar pit of rereading a favorite author’s books and no one else’s. That was okay for a month, but then I needed to stop and pursue something different. Only it was like reaching into a bag of tortilla chips again and again and again, finding it difficult to halt. (The fact that this author published about 137 novels during her lifetime didn’t help me break free.)

So I’m reminding myself both to vary my reading diet and to pull my attention away from the latest so I can venture back into other styles, other topics, other authorial voices. I used to read Dorothy Sayers annually. Sometime in the last decade, I stopped that tradition. I think it’s time I revived it.

I read one of Leo Tolstoy’s tomes about once every twenty years. Are my reading muscles toned enough for Tolstoy these days? Maybe I’d better start training!

Earlier this week, I heard a writer–someone who reads all the time–remark that he couldn’t get into a book because it had “old language.” Even sadder, he’s missing a wonderful story about courage and dragons and friendship just because he won’t make the effort to deal with a non-contemporary writing style.

We need old language from time to time, so we don’t lose it. We need fast stories and slow ones; easy, enjoyable ones and grim, difficult-to-read ones. We need challenges and comfort. We need to stretch ourselves and remember to try authors new and unfamiliar to us, as well as our beloved favorites.

As for me, I’m going to go read now ….


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2 responses to “Reading Fitness

  1. LauranceS

    I probably listen to 20 audio books for every 1 book I sit down and read. My listening ranges from Mark Twain and Joseph Conrad to the most recent Jim Butcher. Can you keep fit by listening to audio books? Can a listener teach themselves to become a writer?

    • Wow. That’s a very good question. I think listening to audio books is a good way to input story. Your own example supports the point that busy people often listen to more books than they read.

      So it shouldn’t hurt you from that standpoint.

      As for your question regarding whether listeners can become writers, I don’t see why not. However, I think your brain is probably processing the story differently than if you read it, and my opinion is that–from a writer’s standpoint–you probably need to be reading more than listening.

      I’m only a layman here, but if scientists are finding that people process information differently and less effectively from reading via the screens on computers and e-readers than paper, then it stands to reason that stories would be processed differently from an audible rather than a visual source.

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