Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Reading widely

Before writing Paradise Lost, John Milton undertook a six-year period of self-directed study, reading everything that had ever been published and was available in Europe.

I find it absolutely fascinating that Milton's world was small enough and young enough that he could do such a thing. It must have been a great education. Unfortunately, it's one that's impossible for modern writers.

When I left my job to pursue my MA in Writing for Young People, I undertook my own self-directed study, determined to read as many children's books as I could get my hands on. And I've read a ton. I have a good understanding of today's trends, the market, how different issues have been tackled in children's literature. I've also learned so much about voice, craft, plot.

Yet as of today my Goodreads account has 210 books on my "to-read" list. It's impossible to keep up, even with the books I desperately want to read. So I fall into a worrisome trap: I limit myself to only children's literature. After all, that's what I'm studying and writing. And it's what I love.

But I also love Charles Dickens, Tim O'Brien, Sarah Waters, history, literary fiction, fantasy, and so many other types of books. By limiting myself to children's fiction, I worry I'm missing out on reading other stories, and learning as much as I can about my craft and language.

So lately I've been trying to branch out. I read a collection of Grace Paley's short stories to see how she incorporated the voices and settings of New York. I read Adam Lanager's Crossing California to see how he did the same for Chicago.

I'm especially grateful for my library's book group. Currently we're reading Deaf Sentence by David Lodge. It's funny, thought-provoking, and the premise and use of language is so clever. As an American children's book reader, I might never have discovered this British, adult novelist. He's certainly not one of the authors on my to-read list. I'm lucky to have the opportunity to read him.

And it's that opportunity, reading widely, and discovering new genres and authors, and knowing that there's so much more to discover, that makes me feel a little sorry for John Milton.

Do you concentrate on one area of literature? Or do you try to read widely too? How do you find new authors to try?


  1. I tend to read across the board and not exclusively in children's lit. I also like to read nonfiction and poetry as well as fiction. I think in doing so, you have a well-balanced reading diet.

  2. I concentrate on children's literature, but I mark that reading time as "work" reading and pursue pleasure reading during my off-time. (It's just a way to give myself permission to read as much as possible.) I rely on recommendations from friends (real & net) exclusively for book suggestions. Like you, I love that moment of finding a new voice that I never expected to read.

  3. Andrea: I was thinking of you, actually, as I put together this post. Poetry is something I hardly ever read, but I've been influenced by your love of it. There is something challenging and fulfilling in a well-balanced reading diet, isn't there?

    Bridgette: How interesting! I love the differentiation between work and pleasure, so that sometimes reading can still be just for fun.

  4. I read pretty widely but lately I've been catching up on tons of great kidlit that I hadn't read - it's so much fun to read kids' books AND feel like it's 'research' too :)

    PS David Lodge wrote the first 'writing craft' book I ever read, many years ago, called The Art Of Fiction, I must reread it, remember it being v good.

  5. I read a lot of kidlit, but I also read almost anything I can get my hands on. Over a year ago I read several Dicken's books, The Three Musketeers,and some other Classics. I also read adult mysteries and non-fiction. I sometimes just walk to my own bookshelves and reread books that I haven't looked at in a long time. ;)

  6. GF: I've actually been thinking about going back to some of the books I loved as a kid (and which have stuck with me) and seeing why.

    I'm so pleased to have discovered David Lodge. I'll definitely have to go back and check out his writing book, and maybe a few of his others. The ending to Deaf Sentence was stunning.

    Liz: Maybe books are like food... sometimes challenging, sometimes fun, and sometimes pure comfort. I love picking up an old book of my shelves that I remember loving. I think I need to get into reading patterns more like you, being willing to read just about everything.

  7. I so want to read David Lodge. I love the title! And I agree -- there's so many to reads out there ... where to begin. Right now I'm reading EAST OF EDEN for the very first time and enjoying the pace -- how Steinbeck is the master of description ...
    It's great to learn and read and learn ... Long gone are the days of being able to read "everything" and a canon is practically obsolete.

  8. Heidi: Deaf Sentence is a bit slow in bits, but its word play I found particularly clever. The end has a memorable (and very touching) bit playing with the title, death sentences as opposed to deaf sentences. I've never read any Steinbeck except Mice & Men in high school. Another author it would be tempting to revisit!

  9. Glad to hear David Lodge is still writing. His "Three Cheers for the Paraclete" was a favorite among people on my second job.

  10. It's so funny how we hear about books, isn't it, Anne? He is still writing, though apparently he's matured. My book group said this one had less sex and more thoughts about retirement and death. =) They suggested another good one for me to read would be Nice Work.


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