While You’re at it, Teach a Stone to Read

This past week, poet Deborah Ager (a fantastic poet and editor, by the way. Check out her collection, read her work in LAR 6, or check out her journal 32 Poems) shared this Annie Dillard quote online: “The writer studies literature, not the world. He is careful of what he reads, for that is what he will write.” Deborah felt this was sound advice–that one should be careful about what one consumes because of the inevitable influence of reading on writing.

Now I’ll admit I’ve never been an Annie Dillard fan. When asked to read Teaching a Stone to Talk in a “Visionary Literature” class in undergrad (I’m still not sure what “visionary literature” was supposed to mean, exactly), I was surprised by how my classmates swooned for her prose. Her work left me cold, though that’s possibly a reflection on my tastes at the time more than it is on her book. But reading this quote switched some of that stone-talk animus back on.

While I have all the respect in the world for Deborah’s opinion (did I mention already that she’s a fantastic poet?), I find this idea of being careful and guarded about one’s reading quite dangerous indeed. I mentioned in this interview with Naomi Canale that I think reading widely is critical, and that it’s just as important to read work one dislikes as it is to read work one enjoys.

Yes, a writer absorbs what she reads. If she’s reading good work, she absorbs good use of language, strong story structure, and artful dialogue. And if she’s reading bad work? I don’t think there’s such blind, osmotic transfer going on that the writer will be eaten alive by rotten fiction or poetry. The writer can learn exactly what not to do–can see the dangers of sentiment, cliche, melodrama, and the like. Getting a clear sense of how artful writing should look is informative. Yet getting a sense of how unpleasant poor writing can look…that’s just as useful in the long road toward mastery of the craft.

Perhaps I feel so strongly about the need to read widely (with an eye toward learning from construction) because some of my students–perhaps more than will admit to it–don’t read books, period. They read online summaries of books assigned to them, and then fake, stumble and bluff their way though assessments, essays and tests of all kinds. Then, when they need to substantively improve their capacities for college entrance exams and essays, they wonder why they haven’t got any tools in their tool-chests.

Obviously this isn’t the sort of careful guarding of the mind that Dillard’s proposing, but I do think it’s limitation at its logical end; a writer who reads little stunts herself in much the same way as short-sighted high school kid does. If writer only read those few works she’d like to be influenced by, how is she going to add tools to her kit? I wouldn’t like to find myself so wrapped up in Haruki Murakami (my favorite novelist at the moment) that I can’t work my way out of a sticky plot situation without throwing in a mysterious sheep or a plate of spaghetti (what is it with Murakami and food description, anyway?).

With the goal of wide-reading in mind, I recently picked up an assortment of books by a few authors of whom I’ve not read very much in the past. Some of them have aesthetics I enjoy very much, and others aren’t really to my liking. In the coming weeks, I think I’ll talk about some of here, and maybe identify some useful items I’m adding to my tool-chest as I read. Who knows–I may even read some Annie Dillard.

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One thought on “While You’re at it, Teach a Stone to Read

  1. Interesting post Kelly. That impressionable phase does need to pass if we’re going to make any headway as writers. If you do decide to take another chance on Dillard, try “An American Childhood” if you haven’t read it. It’s one of my favorites.

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