This is yet another super requested post and though I love to talk about the books I’ve read, I generally don’t tell anyone what they should or shouldn’t be reading. Mostly, that’s because reading taste is a personal preference. For instance, my fiancé won’t pick up anything that falls under fiction. He reads all the time – though it’s incredibly rare to see us ever reading the same book.
With that said, writers should always strive to read beyond their comfort zone. Read experimental works. Read novels in verse. Read the books your grandmother can’t stop talking about. Or books about the history of a country you know nothing about. Books by authors you were supposed to read in high school. Books you bought for your kid brother. Read the stuff you wouldn’t normally pick out on your own. But why?
Ugh. I get this question a lot and the answer I’ve heard from a dozen different writers in a dozen different ways. The short answer: the more you read, the more influences you’ll have when you sit down to write, and the less likely you’ll be recirculating thoughts that already previously existed within your own genre.
Often the books today that are called incredibly unique or original often have roots in very old traditions. I love to use The Hunger Games in my examples, so I’ll do it yet again – the book’s author Suzanne Collins sites the Greek myth of “Theseus” (or “Theseus and the Minotaur”) as one of the inspirations of her book. Or for another example, director Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water was inspired by a reimagining of the horror movie The Creature from the Black Lagoon.
So, what should writers be reading? The answer I’ve come up with – everything you can. I don’t have anything against someone who starts a book but doesn’t finish it. It’s all about putting in the effort of trying something new and exploring something you previously knew nothing about. Start with recommendations from friends or family, or books that are getting a lot of praise and attention. Start with books you already own or can borrow. Some things you might decide are just “not for you” but that doesn’t mean there won’t be books that still surprise you.
In my experience, if my fiancé can’t put it down, I probably can. He and my grandfather read the same books and it’s great. Those books usually center around the lives of long dead presidents or oral histories from the World Wars. Those will never be what I turn to for a “fun read” but even among those books, every now and then I’ll find something I genuinely want to read and I’ll enjoy it.
So then, what do I read? On average, I read over 50 books a year, which is kind of a lot. Most writers I know also read a lot, though 50 books a year is very excessive. Most Americans read about 12 books a year. Some writers I know read 15 or 20, which is still a lot of reading. It’s an expensive habit, so I borrow books, I take suggestions, I go to the library. I rarely read two books in the same genre back to back. I like to alternate between classics and contemporary fiction, which is something I recommend to all writers. I listen to audiobooks.
When I write, no matter what genre I believe I’m writing in, it is almost always called “gothic,” whether it skews more literary or more horror or even young adult. So, I’m generally drawn to books like Shirley Jackson’s Haunting of Hill House or Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber or Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties but that doesn’t mean I won’t drop everything to read the latest book by Rainbow Rowell. There isn’t just one kind of book a writer should be reading, and the more I read, the truer that becomes.