What I have to read?

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Let’s set down the topic of writing for a moment and pick up the topic of reading. While we’re on the subject let’s discuss reading as relates to professional growth. Being behind bars will change the way you view books. The first time you find yourself locked in a cell by yourself for days on end with a book that was selected for you you begin to ask yourself different questions. The question is no longer, what do I want to read, (you can’t access what you want to read). The question becomes, what can I glean from what I have to read? This was the question I asked as I held a book by Walpola Rahula on the teachings of the Buddha. This was what I thought as I cracked a compendium of short stories by Joyce Carol Oates entitled, “Faithless: Tales of Transgression.” Oh, did I mention that you can stumble upon some of your favorite authors by being forced to break out of your comfort zone? Joyce Carol Oates might be one of the most talented writers of the short story I’ve ever read.

     In county jail I read a little book by Milan Kundera called “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” What an insightful, tragicomical view of the nuances at work in relationships. It was beautifully written. In prison I read “Going After Cacciato” and “In the Lake of the Woods” by Tim O’Brien, two books, which in concert, cemented him in my mind as a premier American writer. I read Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy and was awed by his Southern-styled writing. The power he brings to the page is undeniable. You read his literary form and find yourself both compelled and deflated by his talent. I was introduced to King as a fantasy writer for the first time and discovered that he brings a storytelling quality to fantasy I really enjoyed. 

     The biggest change for me was in the shift of reading books not only for their entertainment value but for their professorial quality. In reading a variety of books you begin to identify qualities you admire in specific authors. The ability of Burroughs to write tales of Tarzan and cultivate believability. John Irving‘s ability to write with such comedic tenderness about tough topics. Chris Bohjalian, who forced me to reconsider my own biases when I read “Trans-Sister Radio.” These are a smattering of authors who I might never have read based on preconceived notions or due to the nature of their material. They are also authors who vastly impacted my view of the world and to whom I now owe my gratitude. 

     There have also been books which instructed me in the negative. King‘s Tommyknockers comes to mind, which devastated me (not in a good way) with its tedium and anti-climacticism. But on the whole there has been far more positive. I gathered a true appreciation for one of the greatest “girl power” moments in literature when Mary Shelley showed up her husband and Byron that rainy day by writing a novella called “Frankenstein.” I have also discovered my own opinions of books that “literateurs” esteem. Example: Hemingway‘s “The Sun Also Rises,” which did far less for me than, say, “A Farewell to Arms.”

     I’ve found myself studying small things: transition, tenses, paragraph breaks, caesuras, and chapter breaks; I have also found myself studying different writers’ abilities to construct useful and natural sounding dialogue. The ability to incorporate laughter and lightheartedness into darker works, I have found, is critical to offering the reader relief, and also aids in crafting power when writing heavy scenes. 

     So the lessons are many, probably innumerable, and the study truly never ends. I would say that being well-read alone does not make you a great writer, but you certainly cannot become a great writer without being well-read. I hope to converse with you more on the topic of reading and writing in coming letters.

Roman Newell

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  1. I love how expansive our mind becomes when we afford it opportunity despite where we are situated. It’s incredibly astounding when new authors are able to persuade and influence us, as readers, in turn develops us as writers. That’s a book I would have in my hands to absorb its words while reading. Some incredible authors and choice books in your written article… I also love how our reading habits alter over time through maturation

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