You Must Read

Welcome back to the Creative Life Adventure.

Currently I’m reading The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found by scholar and classicist Mary Beard. Pompeii is briefly referenced in my current writing-project-in-progress, so I’m reading about the city primarily for research. Fundamentally, however, I’m reading a well-researched book by a respected historian about life in a Roman city in the first century CE. It’s full of details about how evidence is interpreted (or misinterpreted) to form theories and paints a vivid portrait of day-to-day life in Pompeii in the years leading up to the Vesuvius eruption. (Apparently school tuition was as problematic then as it is today – one schoolmaster left this message carved into a column in the town amphitheatre: “May those who have paid me their school fees get what they want from the gods.”)

Selection from one page of Mary Beard's book The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found
Mary Beard’s The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found

I thought about this while reading a recent New York Times column with writing advice from writers. It’s agonizingly short, but the most consistent advice, from J.K. Rowling to Christopher Paolini, is to read. The article includes this quote from William Faulkner: “Read, read, read everything – trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read!”

This seems perfectly natural to me. I was introduced to the public library by the time I was in kindergarten and I’ve been an avid reader ever since. It didn’t hurt that we had a grand old Carnegie library in my hometown – it looks very different today, but it’s still there. I have my own small collection of books at home, but I still do most of my reading from library books. It’s astonishing how many people have access to public libraries but don’t use them.

Libraries aside, however, I believe that reading isn’t just an essential practice for writers. It’s a valuable learning tool for all of us. Barack Obama and Bill Gates are among the heavy thinkers who agree with me. There is a compelling argument, as made by Admiral Kirk in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, that “We learn by doing.” It’s true there’s no substitute for experience, but I’ll wager the admiral read a few textbooks (or whatever books will become in the future) before he ever set foot on a starship.

In his book Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes that one must master their chosen domain before they can perform any truly creative works. Csikszentmihalyi summarizes “domain” this way:

Knowledge mediated by symbols is extrasomatic; it is not transmitted through the chemical codes inscribed in our chromosomes but must be intentionally passed on and learned. It is this extrasomatic information that makes up what we call a culture. And the knowledge conveyed by symbols is bundled up in discrete domains – geometry, music, religion, legal systems, and so on. Each domain is made up of its own symbolic elements, its own rules, and generally has its own system of notation. In many ways, each domain describes an isolated little world in which a person can think and act with clarity and concentration.

Master your domain – don’t create your own roadblock on the path to creative achievement

Specific to the domain of writing and literature, Csikszentmihalyi’s book simply quotes writer Richard G. Stern: “I don’t think there are any writers who have not read, who have not been enchanted by books, by stories, by poems.” My argument is that reading is not just vital for writers, but is one step in mastering nearly any domain. A surgeon must read anatomy textbooks before picking up a scalpel. Composers will read about music theory. Even firefighters have textbooks. For writers, the connection seems even more obvious. The aspiring writer determined to defy conventions won’t know what the conventions are without reading some examples.

More importantly, however, reading is simply an efficient and entertaining way to learn about the world and our place in it. Want to share time with your kids that they’ll cherish forever? Read to them. Fiction entertains us and offers insights into human behavior. And nonfiction offers endless journeys that we might not otherwise be able to take. Reading invites us into the real world and infinite imagined worlds. It encourages our imagination to explore beyond the page. I can’t imagine a more diverse or vital mental exercise.

I may never make it to Pompeii, but thanks to Mary Beard’s excellent book, I’ll always have the sense of having been there.

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