Read to write.
A deepening paradox. Writing is everywhere, but reading happens less each day. We can’t get away from the written word, but we don’t read. Google “decline in reading” and you’ll get 286 million results. The first result is the chilling study Reading At Risk, published by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2004, which documented a steep decline in the preceding two decades of adults who read literature. A decade earlier, Kelly Gallagher — the hardest working man in high school English teaching — published Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading And What You Can Do About It. Instagram, the nail in the literacy coffin, was created in 2010.
I learned to read by willing comprehension of the hieroglyphics on cereal boxes. “Cheerios” meant the joy I ate from out of the bright yellow cuboid. I still love eating cereal. The pleasure of being each day began with that ritual, and that first recognition of a connection between a symbol and an experience filled with good meaning shaped my life in ways I like most. It made me a willing victim of the written word.
When I began my stint as a high school English teacher, my main goal was somehow to share with my students what reading gave me. I knew it wouldn’t be easy, especially since I realized I had no idea what I was getting myself into — starting this job at age 50 — but I thought I could figure it out. The primary challenge was to divine how to transmit a fascination with writing. My first lesson involved me piling books and magazines on the round table in my terrifying classroom. Several books of poems by my father and other people I knew, short stories and novels by writers I’d had dinner and played basketball with, things I’d published in magazines, and my honking fat Ph.D. dissertation. Each artifact told as big a story as I wanted, and it was personal, first-hand. Show-and-tell. How could I lose?
They weren’t impressed. I have ideas why, but ultimately it doesn’t matter because I kept trying. And I kept failing. Few of my students would admit to being readers, and even fewer could write a sentence, even after six years with me. Those who did fess up to reading for fun were the rare ones who articulated complex ideas in ways that seemed intentional and graceful. They signed up for creative writing, and we got somewhere.
The rest, well, they can’t write very well. But they don’t need to. Right? If they could, I wouldn’t consider myself such a failure.
There are a million reasons we’re in this situation. Actually, it’s probably more like 286 million. Sadly, I don’t see things improving in terms of reading and writing as the pair of essential educational practices instilled in every generation of public school children up until, well, about my late-Boomer demographic. I was very fortunate to get hooked up with the Boise State Writing Project after my first year teaching high school, which validated my desire to teach kids to love reading and become solid writers. I knew these two things were connected, but having a group of smart teachers and professors work together on ways of making these connections powerful for “reluctant learners” meant enough to motor me through my repeated failures.
Then came Covid. I always think of Ovid’s Metamorphoses when I see the written name of the virus, not because I’ve read it and love it but because I haven’t and want to mainly because I know Shakespeare, who makes me weak in the joints, considered it one of his main influences. It sits there, waiting for me. I know it’s there. There’s that. But with Covid came more time and space to read, and I wanted to go back to some things I’d read when I was younger and knew I hadn’t gotten from them nearly what they offered. Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Virgil’s The Aeneid… They’re all waiting.
I picked James Joyce’s Ulysses off of the shelf. I’d “read” it when I was 18. I hadn’t understood it, but enough of it had stayed with me for 40 years that it felt like going home a little bit. “Love loves to love love.” After a few pages, I realized I needed to re-“read” Homer’s The Odyssey before relaunching the Joyce book. As I’d felt in 7th or 8th grade, Homer just didn’t do it for me, but at least I’d made the effort and touched the skeleton for Ulysses.
I often told students, “If you want to write better, read. Read a lot.” In eight years, I had precisely one very good writer. She’d read constantly from the time she was tiny. There’s no way to write well if you don’t read. It really is that simple. Writing is hard, and very unnatural because you have to force order on the chaos of thought. Joyce gets a lot of (earned) credit for “revolutionizing” fiction with his “stream-of-consciousness” narrative passages in Ulysses, but really all he was doing (I say “all” as if it is easy; it’s obviously not) was transcribing what he imagined his characters were imagining in real time. We don’t think in sentences and paragraphs, and his innovation was to try to show that natural flow of ideas. But we try to teach kids to write in these unnatural ways. Maybe that’s the problem right there. I’m sure lots of people have thought of this. I wish I had much earlier; I’d have been a better writing teacher. Still, sentences and paragraphs are writing’s currency. Nobody who knows anything thinks otherwise. So read if you want to write better: the more good sentences and paragraphs your brain digests the more those structures stick and make themselves available for you to imitate and riff on.
More than structural help, though, I think reading helps us with the texture of our writing, with vocabulary and diction, which make up syntax. We’re blessed with a complicated prefrontal cortex that allows us to sense and transmit shades of meaning. Those shades and variations and subtleties and nuances are rooted in vocabulary. But “vocabulary” is deceptive: words have denotative meanings (their dictionary definitions) but also an infinite number of context-specific meanings (connotative). Still, the starting place is the word.
Reading grows vocabulary, unless you’re lazy and just skip over words you don’t know. Even then, you can still — if you’re not too lazy — use context clues to infer what an unrecognized word means. But then it’s still a guess, which gets messier if you’re reading fiction or poetry because of the capital metaphor holds in those genres. So this puts reading back in a bad place for a lot of folks: it’s work because you’re gonna have to use a dictionary if you don’t want someone (you!) to call you lazy.
“DBL”: I used this acronym in my classes to urge students to do the hard work of reading and thinking and writing. Don’t be lazy. It’s worth it.
I’ll end with what made me appreciate my own resistance to laziness, a paragraph (most of it) from Ulysses that has to do with water. Who doesn’t like water? Even if you hate it or are afraid of it you have to love it. But even if you admit loving it, as I do, chances are you don’t know all the words in this paragraph relating to it. The context for this passage is simply what the book’s hero (Leopold Bloom) admires about water as he’s putting the kettle on the stove to make hot chocolate. He’s a good human but not someone intellectually out of reach, and these words are the invisible narrator’s and not necessarily ones Bloom knows, but it doesn’t really matter. What does matter, I think, and why I love not just this passage but most of this book, is that it shows us what our brains and hearts are capable of with a little effort and desire: appreciating beauty and gaining knowledge and experience that form the cycle (similar to the cycle of water) of being. That’s really what it comes down to. And if we pay attention, and want to write better, these kinds of things can help. A lot.