This is a simple reading proposal –
Undergraduate and MFA writing classes teach this adage: Read the greats to understand greatness. Read only the best to become the best.
And that makes sense. So, of course, I did. And I do.
But I tweaked the idea.
Over the past few years, starting with ten books a summer (and 10 to 20 books throughout the rest of the year), I’ve followed a reading plan that has significantly improved my own fiction writing. And it goes like this:
Starting with the collective bodies of work of the writers I admired most – and had heard the most about – I began at the beginning. The writers’ beginnings – their first books. For example:
Cormac McCarthy’s The Orchard Keeper.
Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time (his American debut).
Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.
William Faulkner’s Soldier’s Pay.
John Steinbeck’s Cup of Gold.
Then I read the writers in chronological order.
And I’m sure many others have done the same. But my particular tweak on the idea of chronological reading is this: I reserved the most revered works, the most critically acclaimed, for last:
Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.
Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls.
Steinbeck’s East of Eden.
Morrison’s Song of Solomon and Beloved.
And when I finally made it to those great works, I had a full understanding of the writers’ capabilities, strengths, weaknesses (in Steinbeck’s case, so many weaknesses that he is now nearly unreadable to me).
But by the time I got to Faulkner and Morrison’s greatest works (interesting because Morrison wrote her graduate thesis on Faulkner), I had become such an ardent fan that, paradoxically, I had almost no desire to read the final work.
I hesitated. Waited. In Morrison’s case, six months between Song of Solomon and Beloved.
I both wanted and didn’t want to experience the “greatest work” for the first time. Those final books had become almost virginal.
I guess this could be considered another obsessive compulsive idea. And to be honest, I am frustrated with myself when I realize that I’ve started reading a new writer on her second or third book. I want to stop immediately and go back.
Read the first. Then the second. Then the third.
Skip the Pulitzer Prize winner.
And it’s odd with new writers such as Jhumpa Lahiri, who’s first book is clearly her greatest so far. In that case, do I skip it? Skip the first? Go to The Namesake, then back? Does that still count?
I stress about these things.
But then I remember that I’m trying to improve myself, to learn, to evoke.