3 Reasons Writers Read Books

Writers Read

Photo by Steve Coutts

Every once in a while, I hear a writer say something like, “I don’t need to read. I’m too busy writing to read.” Stephen King would have something to say to this, but I keep quiet. Writing is hard enough. I don’t want to make it harder.

For me, though, reading inspires, instructs, and helps me connect with other authors more than any other habit.

100 Books

At the start of 2013, I challenged myself to read 100 books this year, and as of today, I’m on track. I enjoy reading, but even more, I enjoy how reading affects my writing.

Here are three things I’ve noticed about reading’s relationship to writing.

1. Reading Inspires

In an interview with the Paris Review, Maya Angelou said:

I’ll read something, maybe the Psalms, maybe, again, something from Mr. Dunbar, James Weldon Johnson. And I’ll remember how beautiful, how pliable the language is, how it will lend itself. If you pull it, it says, ‘Okay.’ I remember that, and I start to write.

Reading inspires writing. It always has. Writing is a way to say “thank you” to the authors who have touched our lives

Writing can also be an act of rebellion against the way our favorite author’s saw the world. Martin Amis said of his father, Kingsley Amis, “When my father started writing, he was saying to older writers—for instance, Somerset Maugham—it’s not like that. It’s like this.”

Whether in gratitude or rebellion, reading is fuel for your writing.

2. Reading Instructs

In an interview with Charlie Rose, the late David Foster Wallace said, “The way I am as a writer comes very much out of what I want as a reader.”

The more I read, the better my sense for how to craft stories. I understand my characters better. Reading teaches us how to write. Reading shows us the possibilities of language. Sometimes, reading even challenges us to write something better than what we’re reading.

When you read writers you admire, read slowly and carefully. Ask, “What was he trying to do when he wrote this? How did she craft this sentence? Why does this create such a powerful emotion in me?”

3. Reading Connects

I have a few friends who are writers, and whenever they write a book, I try to read it. I know what it’s like to put my heart and soul into ink and pieces of paper and have no one I know read it. I also know what it’s like when a friend tells me, “I read your book. It was great!”

Before I interview a writer, I try to have some familiarity with the books they’ve written. I may not read everything they’ve written, but I’ll read something. I do it because I want them to know I understand them, that I care.

For writers, reading is about relationship. These other authors, they’re our friends, our co-laborers, our kin, whether we know them or not, whether they’re dead or alive. By appreciating the work they do, we appreciate ourselves.

To Be a Great Writer

To be a great writer takes time. I understand you’re busy, that you may not have two or three hours a day to read. That’s fine. You won’t hear any guilt tripping or condemnation from me. Life is hard. Why make it harder?

However, if you want to be a great writer, you will have to find time to read. Philip Roth talks about his writing habits:

It’s work. Just endless work. There isn’t time for any bullshit. I just have to work all the time, very hard, and cut everything else out.… I write from about ten till six every day, with a hour out for lunch and the newspaper. In the evenings I usually read. That’s pretty much it.

How many hours do you spend reading per week? How many books do you want to read this year? How has your reading empowered your writing?

PRACTICE

To read 100 books in a year, you have to read one book about every three days, which means you have to read one-third of a book every day.

Today, I challenge you to read one-third of a book. (Feel free to start with a book on the shorter side.) If you’re up for it, let me know by leaving a comment saying, “I’m in!”

If you’re looking for a book, check out storycartel.com, our sister site, where you can get free books in exchange for your review.

About Joe Bunting

Joe Bunting is a writer and entrepreneur. He is the author of the #1 Amazon Bestseller Let's Write a Short Story! and the co-founder of Story Cartel. You can follow him on Twitter (@joebunting).

Join the Community!

If this post helped you improve at the craft, consider subscribing. It’s fast, free, and you’ll make our day:

You’ll also get a free copy of our eBook 14 Prompts.

  • http://www.facebook.com/theauthorrwfoster R.w. Foster

    I read about 2-3 books at a time, over the course of a week. That may be why I’m trying to *write* four at once. (smh)

    • http://twitter.com/JewelsCat Giulia Esposito

      Hmm, I do this too…..you might have a good point here R.W.

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Ha! Interesting connection. I wouldn’t have thought of that, but it makes sense.

  • http://twitter.com/JewelsCat Giulia Esposito

    Joe, I’m an avid reader. I always tell everyone, I learned to read when I was 8 and I haven’t stopped since. But majoring in English forced me to stop reading for pleasure and to always always be a critical reader. When I finally completed my degree, I still read, but at a much slower pace. I was also a snob so I was picky about what I read. For nearly 10 years, I was too snobbish to read what I liked, or frankly, even know what I liked anymore. Some time last year, I got so sick of picking up books that I wasn’t interested in, and asked my friend to give me something mindless to read. She introduced me to romance, and that’s when I learned what a snob I’d been! Last year, I read 107 books and the more I read, the more I realized I wanted to write, a dream I gave up in high school. And I found that the more I read things I loved, the more I wanted to write. It was completely inspiring. This year my challenge is 125, with a few clauses. So I’m in!!

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      What a great testimony to the power of reading. I majored in English, too. The tools I picked up were great, but getting over my the snobbishness that came with the degree has been important.

      • http://twitter.com/JewelsCat Giulia Esposito

        I totally agree, I wouldn’t change my major for anything else, but while it gave me a fantastic skill set, it turned me into a bit of a snob. Luckily we are getting over that now Joe.

    • http://twitter.com/JasonZiebart Jason Ziebart

      I’m still getting over my snobbery, but I’ve landed back in academia on the teaching side, so I’m put in a catch-22 sometimes with reading selections. I tried something new this semester and let my students have a say in the fiction selections from the textbook. It’s been fairly successful, but it’s also opened my eyes to newer stories that I’ve easily overlooked because it’s so hard to ignore the classics. I started three books last June. Two were modern and the other was _For Whom the Bell Tolls_. I finished the thriller in two days, the drama in about a week, and I finally finished Hemingway’s classic in November.

      • http://twitter.com/JewelsCat Giulia Esposito

        I like that you’re offering the students selections! Too often as teachers, we don’t take the students interests into consideration. Letting them take the lead will allow them to facilitate their own learning in ways you probably never would have imagined. Students of all ages will tell us what they need from us as teachers, if we take the time to observe and interact with them. Glad you are doing it, it cheers my teacher’s soul :)

  • Christine

    Sounds like a great idea! I’ll give it a try.

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Awesome. Best of luck, Christine.

  • themagicviolinist

    I read about half of The Maze Runner in one night and then the rest of it the next morning. ;) I’ve also learned that listening to one of the Harry Potter books on CD at night helps me to fall asleep.

    • http://twitter.com/JewelsCat Giulia Esposito

      How can you fall asleep listening to Harry Potter books? I stayed up all night to read them!

      • http://www.facebook.com/karl.tobar Karl Tobar

        Same, Giulia. Came dangerously close to being late for work a few times, too.

        • http://twitter.com/JewelsCat Giulia Esposito

          I LOVE those books.

      • themagicviolinist

        I’ve read them so many times over I’ve memorized what’s going to happen. ;) Jim Dale is awesome.

        • http://twitter.com/JewelsCat Giulia Esposito

          So I quote it at you and you’d know exactly which scene and which book? Awesomeness.

          • themagicviolinist

            Hmmm . . . Probably. Want to try? ;)

          • http://twitter.com/JewelsCat Giulia Esposito

            Love to! But we probably shouldn’t ;)

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      I know what you mean, MV. I used to do that with movies I’d seen dozens of times.

    • http://www.facebook.com/audrey.chin.9655 Audrey Chin

      I love Harry Potter. But, actually, the writing’s pretty pedestrian. It’s the plot and atmosphere that save J.K. Rowing.

      • http://twitter.com/JewelsCat Giulia Esposito

        I don’t know, I found her style pretty clean and polished. She’s witty too. Plus, it’s children lit. For me, it was the themes in the series that inspired me more than the overall plot.

      • themagicviolinist

        I can agree with you a little bit. The writing was not as great as it could’ve been for the first couple of books, but they were also written for 11 and 12-year-olds. The writing got even better as the series progressed.

        • http://twitter.com/JewelsCat Giulia Esposito

          Yes, the writing matures as the audience matures for sure. My cousin started reading that when it was first out (he was a kid at time) and when the last book came out, he was still completely addicted to the series and he was 17 by that time. So Rowling kept her original audience hooked from beginning to end that way.

          • themagicviolinist

            I was seven when the last book came out. I was (by far) one of the youngest people at the midnight release, besides my brother who was four.

          • http://twitter.com/JewelsCat Giulia Esposito

            I preordered and picked it up the next day. I was a lot older than you.

    • themagicviolinist

      Okay, I finished an entire 200-page book last night! I thought I would only read a little bit, but I just had to finish it! I also ended up reading half of another book after that book.

  • Marla4

    I’m in. I finished Elizabeth Berg’s Open House last night started reading the Paris Review selected short stories just after. I may have a slight reading addiction.

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Nice, Marla. That sounds like fun. :)

  • http://avajae.blogspot.com Ava Jae

    Great post, Joe. You really can’t emphasize enough how important reading is for writers. As Stephen King said (and what I’m guessing you were referring to at the beginning of your post), “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.”

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Thanks Ava. Yep. I like that quote.

  • eva rose

    Great idea! I don’t read 100 a year but I always have one next to me. I’m a slow reader because I read and reread favorite passages, phrases and wording. (I also read to school children once a week which is fascinating!) Good writing is such an inspiration. Wherever possible I try to respond to a blog because feedback is so important to a writer.

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Slow reading is probably better than fast reading, Eva. Good for you.

    • http://www.facebook.com/audrey.chin.9655 Audrey Chin

      Eva, great thought about children. I still love Charlotte’s Web and Are You My Mother? They may be children’s books but they’re hitting on eternal truths.

      • themagicviolinist

        My mom loved Are You My Mother?

  • http://twitter.com/fcmalby fcmalby

    This is a great and very honest post. Reading and writing are an inseparable partnership. Ian McEwan reads for as many hours as he writes each day.

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      I like that.

  • http://www.facebook.com/dam.busch Adam Smusch

    I’m in. I’m reading the Orchard Keeper by Cormac McCarthy right now

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Ooh, going for the old stuff. Tell me what you think of it when you’re done. I haven’t read it yet.

  • Boda

    I’m In!!!

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Great! Thanks Boda.

  • http://www.facebook.com/karl.tobar Karl Tobar

    I’m in. Let’s see so far this year I’ve read… 2 books. But in my defense, Stephen King’s “Desperation” is well over 600 pages and a lot of time has also been dedicated to reading short stories! I just finished “The Langoliers” and I am about 10 pages into “Secret Window, Secret Garden.” They’re both in a book called “Four Past Midnight” which has 4 of King’s stories.

    The thing is, Four Past Midnight is almost 800 pages while Secret Window, Secret Garden is about 150 of those pages. Do I count SWSG as a book, or do I read 266 pages as a third of the entire 800? Hmm. Either way I guess I better get to it.

    Great post Joe

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      It’s a little harder to measure like that, isn’t it. It sounds to me like you’re doing just fine, though.

    • http://www.facebook.com/audrey.chin.9655 Audrey Chin

      Well, since most books are about 200-300 pages, you’re really doing 2 or 3 books in one go according to the “average” measure.

  • Xaviera Gp

    I´m in! :D i actually made a challenge on goodreads!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100004628580362 Lucia Rojas

    Thanks for a great post, Joe. I just joined this site and am loving it. What a relief to know I don’t have to choose between the two things I love most-reading AND writing. Too long ago, I bought into some BS piece of advice that reading while writing would keep me from “finding my voice”. Currently working my way through C.S. Forester’s, Hornblower and the Hotspur and Robert K. Massie’s biography of Catherine the Great.

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      I think there is a bit of truth in that, but I would only worry about it if you’re noticing it affecting your writing in a negative way. For me, the affects of reading are all but positive, so it’s worth the risk. Also, all writers are a combination of the voices of other writers. As Cormac McCarthy said, “The hard truth is that books are made from books.”

      Also, I love the Hornblower series!

  • http://www.pjreece.ca/blog/wordpress/category/blog PJ Reece

    Recently reading Nikos Kazantzakis’ memoir, “Report to Greco”, I am filled with his spirit of urgency and passion for life. Reading Kazantzakis is like being infused with a passion that is like a memory of being younger and wilder, and I want to dive into my own writing with that same gusto. Reading unearths realms that lie dormant within me. I just returned from the used book store with a small heap of novels and travel books by Kazantzakis. I challenge anyone to read Zorba the Greek and not feel more alive.

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      I love this, PJ.

  • Guest

    I’m In! At the beginning of 2013, I decided to challenge myself to read at least 4 books per month and to complete a Read Through The Bible In A Year plan. So far, I’m on track. As far as writing goes, I am considering starting a book review blog…but first I need start writing more consistently on the blog that I started last summer. I’ve been lacking self-discipline in the writing area!

    • Guest

      (Sorry for my goofy post above…I was editing my Disqus profile and I accidentally posted my comment before the profile updating finished and it posted me as “Guest” with an additional photo.)

      • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

        Don’t worry about it. :)

  • Juliana Austen

    I have been reading Siri Hustvedt “The shaking woman or a history of my nerves” – fascinating! She spends some time exploring language, and reading. One of the things she says about reading is that it is the closest we get to living inside another person’s head. Living their ideas, experience and their point of view. I think this is why I find it so difficult to write realistic characters. To experience different points of view I need to read more! And not just the sort of writing that I like, that I am comfortable with but the stuff that challenges me.

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      I know what you mean, Juliana. It’s fun to read outside of your comfort zones.

    • http://www.facebook.com/audrey.chin.9655 Audrey Chin

      This sounds interesting. I’ll put it in my to-do list. You might find The Kitchen Daughter another interesting read. It’s about a woman with Asperger’s who conjures the ghosts of her loved ones when she cooks from recipes they’ve handwritten.

  • Padma Ayyagari

    I have started this year with a challenge to myself to read a book every week, that will be 52 books and I have fallen short of that challenge already by about 2 books. I understand the connection between reading and writing but when working full time, running a business and a household takes over, there is very little time to express creativity in the remaining time by writing a blog and painting, so the intention is there but I have to find a way to squeeze in the reading. I did give myself a challenge of cutting down TV completely ( I don’t watch much as it is) but that is not actively implemented at the moment. I will get back to that challenge starting today and use that time to read…Thank you for the challenge, may be I can reach the goal of 52 if not 100.
    Regards
    Padma
    http://www.areyouchanging.org

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      That’s a great compromise, Padma. Good for you.

  • Madison

    I haven’t read a book in so long. Ever since I got the idea for my story last year, it’s been hard for me, but I’m in! I think I’ll start The Great Gatsby.

    • Karoline Kingley

      The Great Gatsby is great (no pun intended.) It’s short too, so it won’t take you long. It’s a deep as well, so it’s good for critical reading.

      • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

        I’m reading that for a book club. It’ll be my 3rd time!

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Do it.

    • http://www.facebook.com/audrey.chin.9655 Audrey Chin

      That’s such a nice read Madison. You won’t be sorry you started. And the prose… so seductive.

  • Antonia

    I’m in. I used to read constantly, but I’ve just started Year 11, and the workload’s picking up, so since the start of Year 10 I haven’t been reading so much. This is just the push I need. I want to read like I used to. I’ve read three books so far this year, so I’ve got some catching up to do.

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Three books is still really god, Antonia.

  • ankit

    good post

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Thanks Ankit.

  • Karoline Kingley

    I spend an hour or two a day reading, but I mostly read classic novels which tend to be long, so it can take me a while to get through it. I would estimate I read about 25-30 books a year. Right now I am reading “The Fault in Our Stars,” and I am half way through after one day. I can’t decide if that is because the plot is gripping, or the book is shorter than what I am used to.

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      I’ve heard such good things about that.

    • themagicviolinist

      I started reading The Fault in Our Stars one day and finished it late that night. I LOVED it!

  • Jay Warner

    Train Dreams by Denis Johnson is a fantastic little book that is quick to read but has amazing depth and language that just pulls you into the story. It was the fastest read so far for me this year. Now I am reading the Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal which is luxurious and dreamy. It’s taking me a bit longer. I tend to like books with depth, history, rich language and even richer imagery. I don’t know if I will make it to 100 books this year, but I am going to shoot for 75. So far I have read 5. I definitely feel that I am a better writer because I am a reader.

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      I read that last year. It was brilliant. I like how you describe your interests. I have similar tastes.

    • http://www.facebook.com/audrey.chin.9655 Audrey Chin

      I read Hare last year Jay. It was slow going but sooo interesting. Well worth it in the end, and I really learnt a lot about continental early 20th century Jewish families.

  • http://www.jonstallings.com/ Jon Stallings

    My goal is no where near 100 books. Normally I read between 15 to 20 books per year. The constant investment of words helps me with writing ideas and helps me enhance my own style. I have worked in the tech field for many years so my writing tends to be very short and too the point. Reading great books helps me add a little more complexity and creativity to my own writing.

  • http://www.facebook.com/audrey.chin.9655 Audrey Chin

    Yes Joe! Reading is one of the basic 3’s to becoming a writer, then a good writer and hopefully a great one. The other 2 are writing and listening/watchin. Listening/watching to ourselves and our world is how we get our stories. Writing is a basic, otherwise the stories don’t get told. And reading, well that’s polishing our craft.
    I read about 3 hours everyday but that’s work – lots of economics, statistics, accounting and legal/regulatory mumbo jumbo.
    I read about 2 hours every night from blogs, literary journals and a big book. I really recommend Longreads and Longform Fiction on Flipboard for anyone who wants to dip into something well written that’s less than 5000 words.
    Recently I’ve been reading thrillers and mysteries because I’m trying to write one. Also doing reviews for Story Cartel. I manage about 4 books a month, slow for the course, I know.
    Just re-read Ursula Le Guin’ 4 Ways to Forgiveness (wonderful sci-fi recreation of the aftermath of a other-planet slave society) and PD. James – The lighthouse (classic British whodunit). Have also devoured Philipppa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl. I’m in the middle of The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown. It’s curiously written in a 3rd person plural omniscient! But it works.
    I’m in… slowly though. Not at 2 books a week.

  • Valerie OBrien

    I’m in! And this post has encouraged me to finish “On Writing” today.

  • Laura

    I wasn’t aware we needed reasons to read. :)

  • Mirelba

    Just wrote a whole post that seemed to have disappeared.

    I think that we read because we love the written word, don’t you think? I remember after learning to read, being blown away by the ability of a good book to whisk me off to far away worlds and experiences.

    Up until recently, I would read 2-3 books a week, but since starting researching my novel, I’ve been reading more in Hebrew, my second language, in which I’m fluent but slower. Located in Jerusalem, that’s what I have greater access to. Last month I read 4 memoirs and research books in Hebrew, half a novel (excellent, but not translated into English yet) and only 2.5 books in English (1 research and 1.5 Story cartel novels). So I’m way ahead of my yearly average for reading in Hebrew, and behind my monthly average in numbers of books read in total. But hey, who knows, maybe it will pick up, so I’m game.

  • Lisa Banning

    I’m in! I think you gave me the excuse I need to take more time to read. I always feel a bit guilty and indulgent. But this is an assignment, it’s work!!! Thanks

  • Michael Cairns

    Hi Joe
    Thanks for the post, a timely reminder.
    I’d love to join you, but 100 is perhaps a little beyond me time wise. Having said that, I spent a couple of days in bed last week ill and got some serious reading done, so maybe a few more sick days might be in order :)
    I thought your second point was particularly important. I’ve always read, but only recently taken to dissecting and enjoying what particular authors do in a conscious way.
    cheers
    Mike

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Thanks Mike. Isn’t dissecting fun? I’ve learned more about writing that way. I hope you’re feeling better!

  • http://twitter.com/shernaila Sherry

    I’m in. Thank you for the challenge. This will help me set goals and improve my writing.

  • Bailey VandeKamp

    I’m in! I’m on goodreads.com and I am trying to read 150 books this year!

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Wow. That’s a lot Bailey! Good luck. :)

  • Peter B.

    I’m in! I’m starting off with 11/22/63. It “only” has 849 pages! =)