Reading as a writer

A few years ago, I watched a programme about adult literacy. An educator took on a few adults who were illiterate and set out to help them master the world of words. He was determined that he was not going to give up on them, as it appeared their teachers had, and would figure out what was stopping them from reading and open up the world of words for them.

They were an assorted bunch, of different ages, and with different problems, ranging from not having had the support they needed at home to help them practise to having real issues with shape and rotation of letters. With one particular woman, they resorted to having her make letters in plasticine, as she discovered that only by physically experiencing the shape and feel of the letters could she remember them and learn them.

By the end of the programme, they could all cope with basic reading, but their reactions were mixed. One woman was heartbroken over all the time she had lost, and all the books she had not read, while another had a very surprising reaction: she was furious. She felt that by being able to decode all the words around her, she had been deprived of peace of mind. She yearned to go back to the days when she could walk down the street without being aware of all the letters and words.

I find it difficult to imagine not being able to read; in fact I’m addicted to reading, being unable to pass text without stopping to read it. I only realise just how addicted I am when I see something that I can’t quite read, and start feeling extremely twitchy and uncomfortable until I’ve moved closer or found some other way to deal with it.

But my reading has changed greatly over the past few weeks. Now that I’m partway through writing a novel, my reading is influenced by my writing. This has taken the form of reading books with similar themes, to discover how the book copes with the switch from the real world to a fantasy world, or describes a computer game, and is moving on to more general writing issues: now when I read I’m asking myself how much I’ve learned about the character, or the setting, or the world; why I’m interested in that specific character; how the author makes what could be a nasty character more sympathetic, or how he changes voice when he changes viewpoint; how he sets up an impossible situation, and then bends the rules to solve the problem; why something is introduced in a certain way.

Just like the woman who learned to read, there’s no going back. As a proofreader, I find myself distracted by silly errors, because they interfere with the decoding of the text, but as a writer I also find myself questioning the plot, and how the author has planned things, and how he has drawn us in to the world and the characters.

There are more practical issues too: how many characters? How long are the chapters? How does he jump from story arc to story arc? How do we keep up with which arc we’re on? Why does he tell that scene from that POV? And the very basic issues of whether the plot makes sense and if the characters are believable.

Sometimes this new awareness makes life harder; it’s difficult to find a book that really engages, because I’m too easily distracted by the writing. And if I do find a book with a good writing style, then there’s the feeling of inferiority, that envy that I feel when admiring someone else’s eloquence and wanting it for myself.

One thing I’m becoming more and more aware of is that there are two dimensions to storytelling: there’s the story itself, and the storytelling skills. I’ve read gripping stories where the writing style is lacking, and I’ve read books where the writing is strong but the story itself lacks pace and structure.

And then just occasionally I come across a book where both meet. Where a strong story is told by a good storyteller. Where the words flow on the page and the story pulls you along until you can’t resist.

And oddly, that’s where I often slow down, where I find I read a few pages, or a chapter or so, then put the book down, then pick it up later to continue. It’s as though I’m enjoying the book so much that I can’t bear to get to the end of it.

It doesn’t often happen, sadly, and it happens far less frequently than it used to in my childhood. Has my new awareness come between me and the book world? Or is it just an inevitable part of growing up, that reality prevents us really getting absorbed in a book?

Either way, I feel my reading has taken on a new dimension recently. And I really must get back into the habit of writing regularly as well, a habit built so well during November and then lost in the scramble of December.


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  1. Do you get uncomfortable when you can’t read words in other languages? I don’t, but I do know what you mean words are too far away or partially obscured.

    • Oh yes! I visited Holland once and found it very hard not recognising anything around me.
      I find it hard to understand how people can avoid reading signs, such as the “Cash only” sign on a self-service checkout. I used to read the back of the cereal packet over breakfast if there was nothing else around. My swim was spoiled once by being in a different pool with a notice I couldn’t read without my glasses on.

      • I miss a LOT of signs. I’ve heard of a phenomenon where drivers only see what they expect to see (so they end up missing bikers and pedestrians sometimes). I wonder if it’s similar?

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