If I were to go back to the beginning of my academic career, say when I began teaching and writing, what would I do differently that would help my reading and writing? That’s an easy one, because I know exactly what I’d do and it is something I’m recommending for those of you who are young and beginning your career of writing. (Or if you’re old and up to trying something new.)
Read the best writers. About ten years ago a colleague of mine, Sonia Bodi, recommended that I read a writer named Joseph Epstein. I consider the discovery of Epstein to be the best thing that ever happened to me as a writer. It was through reading him that I figured out why I liked some writers and not others, and what it takes to be able to communicate. I read about a dozen of his books one year. I still buy everything he writes (he’s got a book about friendship coming out in a month or so and I’ll post about it as soon as it hits my desk) and read it as soon as I can. He’s at his best in the familiar essay, but his single theme books (ambition, snobbery) are not as good as his collections of essays (but who am I to say that sort of thing about a writer like that?).
It dawned on me that good writers write in such a way that one can read them aloud and know what they mean. Bad writers have to be studied and re-read and pondered. Good writers write in such a way that you can listen to them aloud and follow them. I’ve been reading my books aloud as I edit them now for a few years and it really helps — along with Kris’ ear and my great editor’s, Lil Copan’s, ear too.
Good writers have an ear for what works, what sounds right, what brings both meaning and pleasure at the same time. And good writers have a personal style, and they have some wit (we don’t need boring, scientific books about important topics very often), and they make you smile but not laugh aloud. (That’s the difference between humor and comedy; the former make you smile, the latter make you laugh.)
Epstein led me to think that too much reading of scholarship hurts writing — and for some that is blasphemous, but for me it was a ray of golden light. If I spend all my time reading journal articles and academic monographs and commentaries, the cadence and tone and style of that writing will be what I will produce when I sit down to write.
But, if I begin my writing day by reading a few pages of C.S. Lewis or C.H. Dodd or C.F.D. Moule or Joseph Epstein, with a little Mark Twain tossed in for fun — or even James Thurber — well, then, what I write will have a lighter cadence and little soft glow about it. And if you want to be understood and read, then you have to write in such a way that people can read you and find pleasure in your prose. If not, they may buy your stuff but never read it. Worse yet, they buy your stuff, find it a snore, and never open another book with your name on it.
Here’s what I suggest you do: buy P. Lopate’s big one volume anthology of essays, and read the thing through, pick out your favorite writers, and start reading them one by one. You’ll rise up and call me “Blessed!’ I promise you.
When I was in seminary I “found” (the way Brian McLaren found a social meaning to “kingdom”) E.B. White — not his fiction, which I’ve not read one word of — but his essays. I loved Second Tree from the Corner and One Man’s Meat and The Essays of E.B. White, and I read them all. It helped me to read White but I didn’t make a steady diet of reading good writers like White, so I fell back into the prose of mind-numbing scientists, and it shows up in my unreadable books, like A Light among the Gentiles.
So, if I had it to do all over again, which I don’t get to do nor do I care to — it took too much work to get to where I am now and I don’t get to start all over — but if I did, I know I’d do this to help my writing: I’d read good writers all the time. Especially when I began a day of writing.