You wanna be brainy? Be productive and innovatey? You better read bitch.
You wanna be artsy? Have your routine sorted? You better read bitch.
Ryan Holiday is the kind of guy five-years-ago me would’ve laughedly rejected for being too self-helpey, too philosodudey, too Genuine. But now I’m wiser. You can read someone’s work, learn from it, even if you would despise being sat in a hottub with them. Heck, you can and should read the work of reprehensible people, if it’s relevant to the zeitgeist of the world and the zeitgeist of your philosophical development. Reads do not equal endorsements. But that’s another topic for another day…
So Ryan Holiday has this big thesis statement: to be the salt that people are constantly comparing themselves to, you need to read, and read a lot. I’ve seen people throw around figures: read 500 pages a day, an hour, thirty minutes, to exhaustion… I don’t think the number matters so much as the feeling. Are you fulfilled? Challenged? Inspired? If not, keep reading.
Something I’ve been pretty bad at recently is treating reading like a chore. I would never have called it such, but in the back of my mind I had a goal to read at least an hour every day, and tracked it in my big activity spreadsheet of all known things. And I would leave it after all my main creative pursuits – I’ll get round to reading once I’ve done my daily writing, and if I run out of time and energy, so be it!
This sucked. Reading would regularly get shunted aside. But it should come first. Even if it’s just to break the seal with a ten-minute morning read, it sets the tone, sets you up for progress.
Another issue I’ve grappled with is difficulty. As a teenager, I stuck pretty religiously to teen fantasy fiction. It was easy and familiar. Gradually, I started to dip into some classics, purely out of my own curiosity. My mum’s attempt to force the English classics on me was a complete failure, but I read Sartre’s Nausea and Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame in French because I felt like it. I struggled horribly with both, and I would hesitate to say that I enjoyed Nausea, but the fact remains that these books stayed with me much longer than whatever else I was reading.
In the last few years, but especially when I was working on mainstream romance, I came to denigrate ‘literary fiction’ as boring, pretentious, and lacking in solid story structure. I cleaved to well-written genre fiction. But I’m started to swing back a bit in the other direction. A scientific study showed that reading literary fiction increases empathy, because we have to work hard to understand the protagonist’s feelings. And Ryan Holiday advocates for reading difficult work, providing several useful techniques for punching above your weight. Essentially, you learn the most from challenging writing, because it pushes you into the unknown, which you gradually decode with time and exposure.
During my anti-litfic period, I read purely for pleasure. I did it also to improve my craft, get a grasp on genre conventions, but fun was the driving factor. I stuck with the idea that “writers read”, ignoring the pending question of “what do writers read?”
And now, against all expectations, I’m finding myself drawn back to challenging works. Next up on my TBR is Das Capital. I’m eyeing up Don Quixote, looking forward to dipping back into Banana Yoshimoto’s languid, contemplative prose, and One Hundred Years of Solitude is visible on the horizon.
The thing is, fun, rompy genre fiction is fab. But none of the books that have stuck to my heart, haunted my thoughts, sparked my fingers, have been of this ilk. When I think of books like Salt Fish Girl, I can practically taste the mulled-over melancholy they produce, and I’m filled with the itch to reread them, as well as the restraining impulse of I’m not quite ready yet.
Part of this is growing up, I suppose. I’ve tried to shake off the shackles of pretentiousness for a long time. I censored my own prose, my behaviour, my interests. But when it comes down to it, I’m just a pretty pretentious, philosophical, brainy person. I mean, I have a daily blog. That says it all.
So I’m going to read, more and more. It won’t be the cherry on the top of my creative life. It will be the cement that holds the bricks of my foundation together, filling every open crack of my life. I will cherish, savour, and grapple with it, and I invite you to do the same.