Is it better to read a wide variety of writers, or to read a small number of writers more deeply? When I was in my early twenties I was starting to take writing very seriously and so I figured I needed to take my reading very seriously as well. I didn’t feel that I was anywhere near well-read enough so I stopped reading the same writer two books in a row thinking that reading as wide a variety of writers as possible was the best way to get caught up, and I felt like I had a lot of catching up to do. For a while I wasn’t reading the same writer twice in a year. I covered a lot of ground that way but I couldn’t really get a deep understanding of any one writer. In that time I read one Salman Rushdie novel, one Dostoyevsky novel, one JD Salinger novel. Lots and lots of one off’s.
There were a few writers I read more often simply because I liked them so much. Jeffrey Eugenides, for example. I have read all of his books but he has only written three and there are such long gaps between them when the next one comes along (should be soon*) it won’t count as binge reading any more. Haruki Murakami too. I love his books so much that of course I read new ones instantly but for a long time I had his back catalogue to make my way through and so there was a lot of Murakami in my life for a long while. But mostly, even if I really loved a book or really felt interested in a particular writer, I would space the books out so that I wouldn’t be saturated with any one writer.
Do you know what book it was that caused me to break my own rule? The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I read the second one about two years after the first just because someone told me I ought to keep reading them (I had enjoyed the first one but not enough to go straight to the second and after a while I just lost interest). But a friend insisted I go back to them so I read the second and then instantly read the third and then a little while after that the new one by David Lagercrantz came out and I read that too. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo isn’t exactly the sort of thing I normally go for but it was fun reading those books all at once. So I started doing it with other writers too. I had loved The Lighthouse by Alison Moore a lot, so I just went out and got all three of her other books and read them all in a relatively short space of time.
Obviously what you get from doing this is a deeper understanding of a writers work. A deeper sense of what they are all about. Naturally with a series like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo you get a coherent single narrative, but even outside of a series you can start to see the little trends that emerge in their work. The themes that keep coming up, the tricks and tropes that they use. The voice starts to sound a little clearer.
There have been a couple of writers I discovered recently and I’m not even bothering to try and space out their books. I did that for a long time so I don’t feel like I have to do it any more. One of these writers, Cormac McCarthy, has a big back catalogue and I don’t want to wait to read them. So I’m not. Same with Tom Drury. I read his trilogy and he has a couple of others which I would have read by now, if they were a little easier to get hold of.
I have no idea if reading a wide range of writers is better for fuelling my own writing than deeply reading a few. I am sure that to be a serious writer you need to be a serious reader, and that probably you should be a reader first and a writer second. At least that’s how I feel. For a long time spreading out and reading widely felt right, now I am enjoying sinking into a handful of writers.
* I googled Jeffrey Eugenides while I was writing this because it occurred to me that he might have something new coming out. His books tend to come out about seven years apart, roughly, and I figured he was due. Sure enough, new one is coming out this October. I’m excited already. I’m having a holiday in November and if I can resist I might make it my holiday reading.