Help! I’ve Forgotten how to Read!

I’m a thirty-three year old author with four books sold, and I need to learn how to read.

Growing up, reading was easy.  My mother taught me when I was four, mostly so she could shove a book into my hands and get a break from me.  (I understand her motivation much better these days, having two kids myself.)

Ah, the good old days.  I was encouraged to read anything, so long as I was reading.  From Dr. Seuss, I moved on to The Great Brain series and Garfield collections, Choose Your Own Adventure and Hardy Boys and a handful of old comics I found in the basement.

A few years later, I discovered Star Trek novels.  This was back when there was only one line of Trek books in print, and I collected them all.  Uhura’s Song by Janet Kagan remains one of my favorite books to this day.  Eventually, I branched out to Piers Anthony, Orson Scott Card, Raymond Feist. . . .

And then one day in 1995, I decided to be a writer.  I realized there was an awful lot to catch up on in my genre, both the classics and the new stuff.  I began to focus on what I should be reading in order to be an author.  Would you believe I had never finished Lord of the Rings, let alone the past decade’s worth of Year’s Best anthologies?

I discovered some great books this way, as well as some not-so-great books.  (I stubbornly read every last page of Battlefield Earth.)  Still, it wasn’t enough.  I hadn’t read everything I felt I should.

How I read also changed.  I found myself analyzing story structure, characterization, layered plots, world-building . . . worse still, I couldn’t shut up about it.  I babbled about poor foreshadowing in movies and television, and lectured my poor girlfriend on Tolkien’s genius with language.  I enjoyed the Harry Potter books, but you could write a thesis from all the unsolicited commentary I offered on Rowling’s writing. 

To the great relief of friends and family, I eventually learned to keep my mouth shut.  But I couldn’t shut off my brain.  I continued to study and learn from what I read.  My own writing improved, and eventually I was selling novels and short fiction both.

Things got worse.  Suddenly I had author friends!  I should be reading them too, right?  My publisher sent me some free books, because I should be reading my fellow DAW authors as well.  And don’t forget the research I needed to do for my own novels — my latest has me reading about everything from ocean biology to fishing cultures to Patrick O’Brien’s maritime adventures.

I love reading, but I want to learn how to read for love again.  To shut off the writer-brain for a few hours and read for the sheer joy of it.  I know now that I’ll never read everything I should.  Would you believe I used to reread books?  I can’t remember the last time I did that.  I’ve reread every Dora the Explorer book in the house for my two-year-old son, but I don’t think that counts. . . .

From talking to other writers, I don’t think I’m alone.  So I’m declaring a challenge: some time before the end of the year, I’m going to read at least one book for the sheer joy of it.  I’m going to do my best to shut off the writer brain and lose myself in the story.  I’m going to have fun.

Anyone care to join me?

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  1. 1. Marie Brennan

    I can still manage reading for pleasure, but the bar for it is higher; the author’s writing has to be good enough to sneak up on me and crack me over the head with their story. If I see them coming, it’s usually too late.

  2. 2. Kelly McCullough

    I find that I can reread for the joy of it, but first reads are almost invariably critical reading.

  3. 3. S.C. Butler

    Maybe I’m lucky, but I still read mostly for pleasure. I read a lot more genre than I used to because now I have to read books I might not otherwise have read (for all the reasons you mention), but I still read what I think is going to be fun. It helps if you enjoy lots of different kinds of books, from crap to classics. The only time I get really critical is when the book fails to deliver as promised, whether it’s cheap thrills or deep insight.

  4. 4. Simon Haynes

    I can still read for pleasure, but it has to be an engrossing book. If it gets boring my mind wanders and my internal editor starts picking at the writing. I start rewording sentences as I’m reading them, and with a couple of books – I kid you not – I’ve got so annoyed I picked up a pencil and started proofing them.

  5. 5. Kelly McCullough

    P.S. I do find that the effect has begun to fade. It was worst in the year before I made my first novel sale–I suspect because a part of me was jealously saying “and this gets published?! Argh!” The farther I get from the phone call from my agent, the mellower I am about critiquing things that come bound as books.

  6. 6. Kate Elliott

    I’ve had to retrain myself, in a way.

    Some books still bowl me over unreservedly. In other cases, I have taught myself to ignore little things if there’s enough else that I really like. However, there are some plot devices and/or writing habits that toss me right out (which they are is idiosyncratic to me – others might not be bothered by them).

    Because I don’t want to go through the rest of my life not being able to read for the love of it.

  7. 7. Jim C. Hines

    I’ve seen some fading here as well. I eventually got better at turning down the writer-brain. Now I just need to get better at shutting out the “should” and reading something purely because I want to.

  8. 8. David de Beer

    > Would you believe I used to reread books?

    ah, good times!

    I’ll echo Simon’s comment, although I do stop short of defiling my lovelies with pen & pencils scrabblings:) not for lack of temptation at times…but yes, enjoyment is still very much there. Just not always.

  9. 9. Bran fan

    Ah, the great irony of our profession. We started writing because we love books, but the more we write, the less we enjoy what we read. All my writer friends are in the same boat. I can’t even enjoy movies anymore. Same problem, I critique as I go.

    One trick that has worked for me is to get my for-pleasure reading in a genre I don’t write. I write SF but read mysteries for fun.

    If you find the purely for-pleasure book, please let us know. Since writers are such picky readers, it should be a wonderful book.

  10. 10. Karen Wester Newton

    I think this is true of any profession. My dad used to be a pilot in the Navy and it took him years to be able to fly on a commercial plane without almost putting his foot through the floor as he tried to steer the plane. When my brother worked as a movie projectionist in high school, he was no fun to sit next to at movies because he kept noticing things like the reel changeover prompts. I once went to a banquet with a banquet director, and instead of enjoying his meal, he kept critiquing the planning, menu, and implementation of the banquet.

    So, when you pick your profession, you can change an activity from fun to work. Chose wisely, grasshopper!

  11. 11. Ryan Viergutz

    Oh very yes.

    After writing three books (one finished a few days ago!) I can still read for pleasure, but a book has to be that much better to keep my attention. I’m also devouring the books that I’m surprised I hadn’t read yet, and actually often being pleasantly surprised with them.

    I can think of at least three books this year that were actually even more fun to read when I realised how they had been created. It’s a weird feeling to be deeply immersed in something when I can see its structure.

  12. 12. Simon Haynes

    Seeing Karen’s Navy pilot comment reminded me – I’m a lousy back seat driver. If anyone has the misfortune to drive me around I’m not only 100% aware of signs, traffic, speed limits, I’m also pressing phantom pedals.

    So – maybe writers are back seat readers?

Author Information

Jim C. Hines

Jim C. Hines' latest book is THE SNOW QUEEN'S SHADOW, the fourth of his fantasy adventures that retell the old fairy tales with a Charlie's Angels twist. He's also the author of the humorous GOBLIN QUEST trilogy. Jim's short fiction has appeared in more than 40 magazines and anthologies, including Realms of Fantasy, Turn the Other Chick, and Sword & Sorceress XXI. Jim lives in Michigan with his wife and two children. He's currently hard at work on LIBRIOMANCER, the first book in a new fantasy series. Visit site.

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