Reading Habits   Leave a comment

My desire to write is more than likely a consequence of my print addiction. I learned how to read very early, according to my parents, before I learned to tie my shoes. Whether or not that’s literally the case, I can’t say, but the truth is I’ve been an active, even compulsive reader, for so long now that books often figure in my foggiest early recollections. A love for books and reading was actively encouraged by those who had a hand in raising me, for which I will be forever grateful. And somewhere along the line, also very early in my life, putting words down on paper for myself became the flip side of reading, a natural outgrowth of a love of words and the tricks they can play. Writing and reading were soon of equal importance, and by the time I was half way through middle school I was quite convinced I wanted to be a writer. This side of the coin didn’t receive quite the level of encouragement as reading, however, due to concerns that I might develop “impractical” priorities.

The reading I did in younger days was not especially eclectic, with general science and science fiction making up nearly all the elective reading I did in middle and high school. There were exceptions. Somewhere along the way I was required to read Buck’s The Good Earth, a book that took my imagination to unexpected places. Most of the normal high school reading list left me flat, until I was assigned Moby Dick, a book that both baffled and fascinated me. Late in high school someone introduced me to Will and Ariel Durant, and history joined science on the nonfiction hit parade. And then there was Shakespeare. I had my problems with Elizabethan English, but for some reason was so fascinated by what I read (and saw performed in a couple of cases) that I made the effort. But these really were the exceptions to the rule, and the authors I knew best were the likes of Heinlein, Asimov, Silverberg, and Pohl. I read so much sci-fi as a teenager that the adults around me reacted to it the way some did the idea of kids drinking coffee – that it would stunt my growth, in an intellectual manner of speaking. And in time, the amount of time I spent off by myself reading was itself seen in much the same way, as too much of a good thing.

In hindsight, they clearly had a point. I was rather shy in younger days, and averse to taking risks. These traits, combined with a combination of family issues and the very conservative social environment in which I grew up, conspired to make me something of a late bloomer. Being somewhat behind the curve made it harder for me to fit in – anywhere – something that made me ever more escapist in terms of the reading material I sought. When I started writing science fiction and fantasy it seemed only natural to do so. I practically lived by and for genre fiction, those genres in particular. Attending science fiction conventions and hanging with a crowd with the same fixations reinforced the habit. To say that what I wrote in those days was terribly derivative would have been, at best, an understatement. That I sold absolutely none of that fiction, not a word, is in hindsight not at all hard to understand.

Nothing stays the same, though, another aspect of reality I’ve come to appreciate in a different way over time. I met people in the sci-fi crowd who had one foot firmly planted in the “mundane” world from which I desired to escape. Through friendships made with such people I eventually found myself encouraged to try new things in that mundane world, to approach and embrace it with a bit more courage. When you take a chance and succeed, you are more willing to push yourself a bit further and harder. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, but if the wins at least give you a sense for facing even odds, you keep at it and keep growing. It becomes a positive feedback loop, an upward spiral, and things really begin to change. You do crazy things, like bicycling the length of Baja California, getting married, and going back to school to earn a degree. You become your own agent of change.

Two things happened to my reading habits as these changes unfolded. I spent more time doing things and less time reading, but at the same time covered a wider range of subjects. Conversations and experiences with a broader range of friends and acquaintances led to the selection of different sorts of reading material. Sci-fi lost its near complete dominance. On the way to the degree I became so caught up by other matters that I nearly stopped reading fiction altogether. Hardly a surprise, I suppose, that I also stopped writing it, although continued lack of sales certainly helped to spill the wind from those sails. Books on history, biography, and science were most likely to stick to my hands in bookstores, with escapist fiction fading to a minor role. I read hard books, works that challenged me, and sometimes confused me. It was a very different escape from the ordinary.

The digital age has brought writing back to dominate my life, these days, and although my first book is nonfiction, I was immediately drawn back to sci-fi. (It felt like going home.) As I’ve worked to develop a credible fictional world I’ve discovered that reading and writing seem to have developed a relationship that inverts the way it was in my youth. Once upon a time reading made me want to write. Now I’m writing science fiction again, and to promote my work I find myself interacting with fans and readers of the genre. They’re talking about books that sound worth reading, and so now writing has led me to read more fiction. It’s a different experience these days, however, and not so much about escaping reality. Reading, which is now the flip side of writing, is informed by a wider range of experience. So is writing. Considering this, I finally understand a comment I heard a long time ago. Live boldly, read boldly, and then write about it.

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Posted September 17, 2012 by underdesertstars in Books and Writing

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