As a writer, it seems rather obvious that I should say that “reading is good.” But let me tell you. As someone who didn’t pick up a book for a long time, until this past weekend, I had forgotten just how true that statement was. Sure, I’ve been reading plenty of blogs and articles, but there is something about sitting there or laying back and reading a full-length book that reading short-form material simply doesn’t provide.
For some time, I had been feeling my writing was particularly lacking. A couple of people pointed out that I wasn’t at my best, and I couldn’t help but agree. It seemed to be lacking emotion. Some of my pieces were too straight-shooting and bland to even dare put my name on and so I held them back to rewrite them. When I did rewrite them, they showed a tinge of frustration and it was clear I was trying too hard to make the pieces sound like they actually had some passion behind them. While they were okay posts, they were clearly not my best work.
It seems that my writing became very two-dimensional for a while. For some topics, that was fine. But there were a lot of things on my mind that I simply could find no way to properly express. But lately, I read a couple of books that made me think about a lot of things that I’ve thought about for a long time. They put things in perspective, and helped me to gain back that third dimension to my thinking that I had apparently lost due to lack of reading. In between those two, I read something much less serious, a biography of former Red Sox manager Terry Francona. But the act of simply reading the books has helped me to regain a little bit of myself that I had lost.
One of my main issues with reading is that I simply cannot read more than one book at a time. Sometimes I’ve been able to push two. But I have a strange problem where if I try to read more than one book at any one time, I tend to not remember much of what I read. When I was younger, I would speed read through a lot of books, remember just enough for a book report, then totally forget what I read. I wouldn’t retain a thing. Other times, I’d pick up a book and if it didn’t hold my attention after the first 20 pages or so, I’d put it down and never pick it up again. Even worse, I would get about halfway through a book, then put it aside for months, then pick it up again and feel like I have to read the whole thing over. So I wouldn’t read it again, as it obviously didn’t hold my attention before, so why would it now?
While I never really wanted to admit this, my reading comprehension skills were actually quite awful all the way through junior high. Certain things, like books about baseball, I would retain fairly well. A few biographies stuck with me, as well. But a lot of books I’ve read over the years I simply did not retain. It wasn’t until freshman year of high school when I implemented my one-book-at-a-time rule. Then I started actually retaining and comprehending what I read.
It may have something to do with how my brain likes to hyper-focus on things. When it comes to books, my brain simply can’t go from book to book. Articles I can blow through because they’re so short. But when it comes to 150 or 200 pages of text, my brain simply cannot switch back and forth between texts. It gets confused and so everything I’ve read apparently goes into a big bin of clutter in the back of my head. I don’t think I actually forgot everything I read – it just wasn’t possible for me to recollect things with any sort of ease. But for a time after I left college, I couldn’t read almost any book without forgetting what it was about almost immediately after putting it down – with a very few exceptions. My reading comprehension skills seemed to evaporate on me. And every time I stopped consistently reading books for any real length of time, my writing thusly suffered badly.
On the other hand, I retained lectures very well if I took written notes. I rarely ever read textbooks because the same problem would happen – I’d never retain it unless I took notes. I considered taking notes as I read books, too. But then it felt too academic, so I never did it and simply gave up reading for a while. Occasionally I’d go on a binge where I’d read a bunch by one author, but I still wasn’t retaining much. It’s only recently that I’ve apparently regained enough of my sanity that I can actually sit down and read without my mind horribly wandering off. That was another problem that I’ve had – my mind wandering as I’m in the middle of a sentence, putting the book down and never coming back to it.
I just need to keep finding books that make me think, so I’m focusing on non-fiction. The pattern of having a book that makes me think and a more leisurely book like a biography then another thinker is probably one I’ll keep to for a while. The most important thing for any writer is to read, but even if you’re not a writer, reading helps you expand your mind and exposes you to a lot of ideas. Reading helps you find new ways of thinking about things, or teaching you how to express ideas you’ve always had but never knew how to actually put forward.
Reading is good, not just for writing, but keeping your mind fresh. Mine apparently was rotting, finding itself too easily distracted. While I’m no longer going to try to force my brain into reading too much at once, I do at least need to coax it into at least finishing a book every couple of days. It’s a bit of discipline that I’d lost, and right now, I need all the self-discipline I can get!
Good thing I started forcing myself to read again. I probably wouldn’t have been able to write anymore. And that would’ve been bad.