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In Defense of Reading and In Praise of Brilliant Writing

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“No matter how busy you may think you are, you must find time for reading, or surrender yourself to self-chosen ignorance.” – Confucius

I’m a self-professed bibliophile. My parents gave me a Kindle for Christmas a few years back, and I had to return it because it simply wasn’t the same as reading and collecting hard copies, which sit perched on my bookshelf like old, familiar friends. (I realize this obsession with tangible, printed pages is slightly ironic considering I write for a blog.)

I love to read, and I admire authors more than any other class of individuals. The problem I recently found myself with is this: I hadn’t read a novel in nearly ten months. I would get home from work every day and opt for the mind-numbing scroll of a Facebook news feed or Twitter timeline rather than the brain-fueling consumption of the written word. I convinced myself that mindlessly munching on the bland babble of social media sites as opposed to zealously devouring a piquant plot wasn’t all bad—part of my job is to stay au fait with social media news, the way in which social networking sites function, any noteworthy changes, etc.

But I grew tired of feeling my mind atrophy and transform into a viscous glob of defunct synapses. I diagnosed myself with 21st-century ennui and determined I needed a break from the oppressive sludge of status updates in which I was wading.

I bought Gone Girl, a suspense novel by Gillian Flynn, and commenced my journey out of self-chosen ignorance. I learned a lot about reading and writing in the process.

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People sometimes joke, “Why go to college when you have Google?” And I’ve also heard someone who shall not be named say something like, “Why read a book when I’ve got BuzzFeed?”

(Yikes.)

 

The Why

The days when reading represented people’s primary, and sometimes only, form of entertainment have long passed. But that doesn’t mean reading is irrelevant or even less important.

Hard copies may soon become vestigial remnants of a pre-Kindle era, but reading and good writing will always offer something the latest digital purveyor of pop culture fluff and frivolity won’t: inspiration, meaning, significance, stimulation, to name a few. The New York Times published an article a few years ago on how some of the most successful CEOs are prolific readers who own personal libraries that resemble inner sanctums. To enter the library of Phil Knight, co-founder of Nike, one had to remove one’s shoes and bow. Dee Hock, father of the credit card and founder of Visa, built a 2,000-square-foot-wing for his books in his California mansion. Steve Jobs collected the books of William Blake.

CEOs may cull wisdom from the books they devour and may construct libraries that bibliophiles dream of, but they’re not the only ones for whom reading is pertinent. I’m a big proponent of the theory that if you write, you need to read. Here’s why: reading helps you figure out exactly what defines good writing. It’s hard to explain succinctly and precisely the common elements of compelling, interesting, arresting writing. But when you’re in the midst of reading it, you know why it works—whether it’s a novel, an editorial, or a blog post.

 

The What

What I realized about good writing while engrossed in Gone Girl:

  • Good writing leaves people wanting more

Before I started reading, I often set a goal of reading to the end of a specific section. Yet, every single time I reached the end of a section, I wanted to keep reading, because each one ended with a cliffhanger that left me intrigued, shocked, puzzled, and above all, curious. I initially hoped to read 50 pages a day, but I actually read closer to 100 simply because of this curiosity factor.

  • Good writing leaves out the filler

Every sentence of the novel was meaningful. Every sentence advanced the story in some way. I never found myself zoning out during prolix paragraphs. I didn’t get lost in the padding of superfluous verbiage either. It all mattered, and it all held my interest.

  • Good writing makes people eager to talk

After I finished the novel, I told my sister to read it simply so I would have someone with whom to discuss the plot, the ending, and the characters. The novel got me thinking, and that thinking made me want to start talking; I wanted to get someone else’s thought and opinions and also gush over just how captivating the novel was with a person who would appreciate this example of articulatory genius.

  • Good writing doesn’t have to be flowery

Ornate writing is undoubtedly beautiful, and authors who weave metaphors and poetic language into a storyline with an ease that’s envious are brilliant. But flowery writing and good writing aren’t mutually exclusive. Hemingway made a career out of writing brief, straightforward, austere sentences, proving that writing can be both terse and robust. Gone Girl was an easy read. It was also an incredible read.

 

The What Now

I’ve read two other books and countless thought-provoking articles since Gone Girl, and realized that whether it’s a psychological thriller of a novel or a detailed analysis of some current cultural phenomenon, reading and discovering the keys to solid writing are inextricably linked.

 

The What Exactly

So here’s to reading more often and becoming a better writer. To make it the endeavor less daunting for all of us, I compiled a list that includes some of the best writing I’ve come across:

For the curious folk: The Atlantic

Articles on The Atlantic pose fascinating questions like “are billionaires good for America?” and span everything from politics to pop culture to technology.

For the non-discriminatory: Mental Floss

The site proclaims itself to be the place “where knowledge junkies get their fix” and offers trivia, quizzes, captivating tidbits of knowledge, and a random fact generator.

For the knowledge thirsty: Brain Pickings

Everything on Brain Pickings is absorbing, whether it’s an article on the daily routines of famous writers or one on 100 ideas that changed graphic design.

For money-minded individuals: The Billfold

The site gives people “everything about money you were too polite to ask.”

For 20-somethings: Thought Catalog

Some writing on Thought Catalog is hilarious and lighthearted; some is poetic and serious. And one of the best things about the site is the mini discussion forums that often form in the comment section.

For literature nerds: the Books section of The Los Angeles Times

A wealth of book reviews and features.

For women who want to tear up, wise up, and/or get riled up: xoJane.com

A site populated by writers who broach taboo and controversial topics fearlessly and articulately.

For the cinematically inclined: Roger Ebert’s Journal

Movie reviews and musings from the famed film critic.

 

Cheers—for Hemingway and all literary pursuits.

In Defense of Reading and In Praise of Brilliant Writing image Ernest Hemingway5

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