Last week, I shared a blog post chronicling my experiences reading Twilight for the first time (if you missed it, you can find it here).
As I was working my way through the popular YA vampire drama/romance, I started making some realizations about my own reading habits.
One in particular really caught my attention: it has been a long time since I have read anything for the sake of fun. Between having to read for school and writing my own books, I think my brain has become wired differently than the “average” reader.
It has long been established that in order to be a great writer, one must also be a great reader. However, if there’s one thing Twilight has shown me, it’s that my own reading habits have shifted drastically since I first started writing seriously.
This week, I’ve decided I want to take a look at some of the factors that have led to these changes.
Reading in Academics
In elementary and middle school, I was an avid reader often devouring books in one sitting. I think the longest it took me to get through a single book back then was the several months it took me to read Gone with the Wind for the first time; I was in the seventh grade, and it was purely for fun (and maybe for showing off since this was in the early days of the Twilight craze).
Once I hit high school, a shift in my reading habits began to take place. In part, this was based on the curriculum. When you have to read Of Mice and Men in a week because of the looming threat of a pop quiz in addition to homework from other classes, you don’t necessarily have the time to devote to leisurely reading. On top of that, I went to a tech school that had us switching between academics and our respective trades every two or three weeks, so one year’s academic curriculum was crammed down our throats in half that time.
I have always had mixed feelings about these curriculums and required reading. Yes, it is important to read the classics. They’re timeless for a reason, and if they’re not timeless they are still a mark of when they were written or popular so there is a lot to be learned from them all the same.
However, I do take issue with the way required reading is handled. Aside from the books selected, forcing someone to read is a matter in itself that takes the fun and enjoyment out of it. I know people who used to love reading but hit high school and honestly grew to hate it because of this.
While I’m not sure how present it is from one school to the next, my high school instituted an additional reading program that was mandatory for all students, basically as a way to make sure we were reading and to test our comprehension of the text via online quizzes from the program’s official website. It was point-based depending on the length of the book and the complexity of it, so say for example about twenty points for a book like The Hunger Games and a hundred for something like The Fountainhead. Every student had to achieve a certain number of points determined by their score on the initial quiz.
Sounds easy enough, except we could only read books approved by the system to get points. So naturally, you’d find the classics and such and a handful of more contemporary reads, but it was still limiting.
You can imagine how frustrating this was for someone trying to read more historical fiction and build her knowledge in both the time period and as writer and having such a small pool of program-approved options to pick from—and scarcely any nonfiction options. And yes, I did put up a bit of a fight because of this and am also glad the school only started this nonsense during my senior year.
Additionally, reading for school assignments is different than reading for one’s own enjoyment.
When there is an assignment attached to the reading, be it a pop quiz or a final essay, it alters the way we read. In the case of essays, we are no longer reading for ourselves, but rather reading to find what our professors want to hear. When we are told to read a book with a certain theme in mind or to be able to answer a specific question, that becomes the purpose of reading it. It can hinder our enjoyment of the work and does not let us form our own opinions. If we are too busy scouring Anna Karenina for evidence of the duality in Levin’s character when he is in the city versus the countryside and how the setting he is in affects his personality, there is so much that gets passed over.
Because the fact is, our grade depends on matching our opinions and reading experiences to those of our instructors.
While this relaxed somewhat in college depending on the professor and the class, it was still there. Required reading in this matter begins to teach us that there is a wrong way to read and a wrong way to interpret something. One of the things I love about reading, and especially one of the goals I have with some of my writing projects, is the opportunity for discussion and the different interpretations of a work.
There are other ways to test reading comprehension than essays. A multiple-choice quiz, for example, where questions are derived from facts within the story, is more suitable for this purpose. There is not so much room for contention when the question is something like “Which of the following does Mr. Darcy tell Elizabeth about Mr. Wickham in his letter?”
Meanwhile, an essay prompt such as “What does Elizabeth Bennet represent in the context of the time period of Pride and Prejudice?” is more open to interpretation—or at the very least, should be.
These essays should be based more on finding evidence to support our opinions rather than find evidence supporting the instructors. When it comes to the real world, this sets kids up for following the opinions of others rather than giving voice to their own out of fear of being wrong.
This mentality can make it hard to enjoy books for what they are. There is less of a thrill when you are not able to read for yourself.
Reading as a Writer
As I mentioned at the start of this article, I feel like becoming a writer has altered the way I read.
This includes what I read.
When I was starting to play around with historical romance and was deciding when I wanted my stories to be set, the only thing I was reading on my own time was historical romance. I was on a sort of mission to learn the craft. I was looking for guidance. How should I write this? How should approach that? What is most interesting about this time period or that period?
When I found my love for Regency and Georgian England, the blinders went on and finding romances set in that era became my main objective.
Many of my latest reads have been nonfiction books, often pertaining to whatever topic I am researching for my various projects.
But the thing is, because I have been so focused on writing, the experiment of reading Twilight for the sake of reading for fun was the first time in a long while that I had done that.
And I think I realize why that is: I read like a writer.
A common piece of advice presented to writers entering the phase of seeking beta readers (readers who read a manuscript and offer their feedback before the author begins the publication process), is that beta readers should not be writers.
After my experience reading Twilight, I think I’m starting to see why.
Most of my writing time has been spent focused on editing, whether it is one of my projects or a chapter my critique partner emailed me for review. I think this affected the way I was reading Twilight.
For the purpose of last week’s post, I was taking notes on my thoughts, whatever came to mind as I was reading. A lot of these, I started to notice, were critiques, as if I were editing this book that was published about fifteen years ago. In the back of my mind, I was also making notes about how I would have used a comma differently or how “blond” should have been spelled “blonde” in that particular instance. Little, ultimately insignificant things.
I think that’s indicative of my reading habits in general. As I’ve started taking writing more seriously as a profession, I’ve noticed myself becoming more nit-picky about what I’m reading. In the back of my mind, I’m always analyzing something about the story, whether it be the way something is written or making note of something in a historical work I want to research later. At the same time, though, I also find myself more receptive to picking up on things done really well, things I want to learn from. I’ve been particularly focused on narrative voice in third-person POV these days.
Overall, I’m more apt to pick the work apart than to enjoy it as one piece. I’ve become more focused on the different aspects of a novel and the way a story is told that I feel like the love of reading I used to have has fallen away.
At this point in time, it may feel like it’s too early to start thinking about New Year’s resolutions and my goals for 2020.
But I do know one of those goals is going to be to just read more in general, for the sake of reading rather than with some purpose or thing I am trying to accomplish.
While I do have a list of classics in my to-be-read pile, some of which are books I would like to revisit now that I am no longer in an academic setting and can just read them for my own enjoyment, I also want to make a point of reading newer works both in my genre and outside of it to see what’s out there beyond my current purview (and to start finding some comp titles for when I do start querying).
And who knows? Maybe I will become a better writer because of it.