So far, I haven’t even hit the one-third mark in a year of reading a book a day. But I have logged more than one hundred books and a trillion hours of reading and some serious blog time. The epiphanies have been much more modest than the effort and they are more like observations than revelations. But there are a few.

Many books that seem juicy and eminently readable are HUGE—800 pages or more. Many. This is really really difficult to manage when you are juggling making a living and running a house at the same time. Skip too much sleep and your eyes go blurry—reading speed slows and the brain turns to mush. Skip the rest of life and no one gets fed, the rabbit runs out of hay and paying work evaporates like ocean spume on black sand. I started Marukami’s 1Q84 and had to return it to the library before I was finished. And it was good—I wanted to read it but it wasn’t happening in one day. Back on the endless library list now to check it out again so I can discover whether the entire book is as good as the beginning. Tackled a massive life of Mahler, another doorstop, and dropped it back in the book bin. Deadly. Not worth the epic read to get it finished.

One casualty of the daily deadline is reflection. I have to forego savoring clever or beautiful writing—or contemplating imaginative ideas—when it’s essential to push on through and complete the book. On the plus side, how fiction works and how language supports it get clearer and clearer the more books I read. A good biography will typically have a classic hero’s journey, even if the hero loses in the end. A good mystery will weave a believable world around a murder with no false step to jar you out of it. Some genres that I never read but pick up now to add variety to this daily adventure are actually entertaining—romance, for example, although I doubt I will ever spend too much time in the land of brooding heroes and heaving bosoms.

So, how is this changing my life? Obviously, it’s eating my time. I’m working my way through a lot of books. I’m also forced to produce some writing every day, tired or not, inspired or not. That has to be good practice for a procrastinating writer. And I have reinforced the knowledge that, if I sit down and begin, I will always find something to write. Never fails. I have more respect for genre books now—I always liked certain kinds but, a hundred books in, I understand that they are often more readable and enjoyable than the well-reviewed “literary” novels that display a mastery of dog-and-pony tricks but don’t pull me into a world. I still want characters who care about things and count for something. Being trapped in a book with a self-absorbed nihilist is a fate akin to falling in love with a vampire—it can never end well and the experience will probably be very painful to boot.

My suspicion is that reading a book every day for a year is an odd kind of creative writing MFA. Some of the stories are very good, some not, but all of the books have a narrative to discern, and lit tricks to make the puzzle pieces fit. I’m better at picking them out. The randomness of the books I select increases the odds that I will learn as much about how to make a book as I do about the women who changed paleontology or where to sit when straddling a dragon in-flight. A book I might consider a fail has as much to reveal about the art of writing as a clear, fluent read with every note pitch-perfect.

I love reading and I’m not sick of it yet, although keeping a stack of books on hand requires a constant hustle. This challenge has intensified my appreciation for the public library. We should treasure our libraries; we would be savages and philistines without them. And one more trivial observation—the doorstop books are awkward to heft and uncomfortable to hold after a while. Their weight and bulk make a compelling case for the convenience of a slim, lightweight e-reader, however much you prefer the experience of curling up with a good, turn-the-paper-pages book.

2 responses »

  1. If you are interested in considering some of the ideas about how fiction works, I might suggest taking a look at James Wood’s book How Fiction Works. (You had the phrase in your post, which is how I came upon your blog). Anyway, some of what he talks about is fairly standard, but he also does a lot of defining vocabulary in terms of talking about literature, narrative and fiction. Just a thought that might be worth reading (also, its a rather short book, which might help in the ‘book a day’ project).

    • Thanks for the excellent suggestion. I will check out Wood–he doesn’t seem to be on my shelf with Gardner, King, Lamott, et al. (And the addition of a less-than-500-page opus to my book stack is always welcome!) I’m pretty casual about sketching a quick reaction to what is necessarily a quick read but it does interest me to see my own prejudices as a reader revealed as the books accrue. Exploring another filter that evaluates the nuts and bolts of building fiction will be instructive, whether I wind up agreeing with him or not. So, on to the library list it goes. Grateful for the tip.

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