Perhaps, in tune with Henry Miller’s intuition that he was an artist long before he became one, some of us are readers and writers long before we become so. It is, thus, this notion of springing into existence, of “getting started” on the way to a life of reading and writing—not just a life during which one reads and writes from time to time, or even a life in which reading (for example, trade journals or law reports) and writing (for example, memos to employees or emails to friends) have some importance, is of primary ontological importance, a question that seems, like its answer, to come from nothing and advance towards something else. We are children, adolescents, young adults, and then we’re in “the reading life” as something unique, self-fulfilling, mysterious and nurturing. It is understood in the creative writing community that being in the reading life is fundamental to the creative writer, the poet, the essayist.   Without a personal devotion to reading, creative writing for most people is impossible. A pianist without knowledge of Chopin and Mozart remains forever incomplete.

Reading in childhood is often remembered fondly. Maybe this is a result of our modern consumer capitalist social structure, which places so much importance on individuation and mobility built into the concept of a “happy childhood” which we’re told will lead to success and further happiness. Many writers report a passion for reading. When I was young, my father took me “to work” with him at a drugstore which, being old fashioned, featured a long rack of comics in a sunny front window and nearby, stands of Golden Books and adult paperbacks. Without being directed, I gravitated to the sunny window where I’d spend hours pretending to read—not just looking at the pictures of Batman and Robin or Archie (my favorites), but mouthing words to the comics, making up stories to myself, silently spending the day involved in something I did not understand. I wanted badly to be able to read. I think most writers will report similar experiences. There is the somewhat inchoate desire to read coupled with a mystical reverence for the words themselves. It is here, in the ultimate dark vacuum of childhood that the reading life begins for most people in the West. My parents bought me books and I created my own “library” in my bedroom. I traced comics onto sheets of paper and “published” my own books with binders my mother brought home from her office. Mother took me, later “to work” with her in a church office, where she stationed me in another sunny window, this time with a typewriter and a stack of cheap typing paper, where I pretended to write, hammering the keys at random, producing a stack of gobbledygook I called a “book”. I studied African animals, stars and constellations, planets, insects, baseball players and, later, even cowboy movie stars—all from books. I had a collection of Hardy Boy mysteries. My bedroom began to resemble a temple to a boy’s life—model airplanes, erector sets, chemistry sets, baseball card collections, plastic records and tiny record player, and many books.

My own reading life was interrupted by a chaotic adolescence. On the run from my abusive father and unpredictable family life, I read what was assigned to me by high school teachers. I read the curriculum in History or English or Economics, and even read some German literature for class. I was interested in sports, and cultivated my interior life by playing and studying chess late at night when my father was on the rampage. In high school, I found a job in a bowling alley to not only be away from home, but to earn gas money so that I could drive around town late at night and listen to music on the radio and think about my loneliness and yearnings for an unknown destiny. Riding around town alone or with my best friend was as lot like reading. It took me out of my own head and put me inside another experience, provided me with thought processes that turned off the negativity of my life and channeled it somewhere else. It gave me a sense of peace at times when my home life was torturous and my mind on fire with hatred and the desire for revenge. Whatever turmoil existed, the life of searching provided a relief.

Away from home and in college, things calmed down for me just when the Vietnam War heated up. I found myself with students who like me did a lot of reading. I studied philosophy and English literature and German and economics and history and what was then called Western Civilization, reading voraciously late at night after my studies were finished. I was systematic and driven. I read the Americans start to finish, Faulkner (every word), Twain, Hemingway (more than once), Dos Passos, Steinbeck, Farrell, everybody. I worked my way patiently through the Russians and the French and the Germans and even the Italians. I admired the existentialists, especially Camus and Sartre, and I admired Nietzsche and Hegel. As a law student in San Francisco I prowled the bookstores downtown and bought hundreds of dirty, cheap paperbacks that were gathering dust on high shelves. I discovered the Beats and read Fitzgerald. I read all of Kerouac and Ginzburg.

I never stopped. One never does. Everything counts. By the time I was in my early 30s I’d been reading non-stop for twenty years. The Hardy Boys counted, as did Hemingway and Jim Harrison and Faulkner and Didion and Raymond Carver and John Cheever and Tom McGuane and Larry Brown and Richard Ford. I began to read poetry thanks to a close friend who’d become a good poet through years of study and practice. Something about poetry made it possible to think that writer could concentrate hard enough to write in short bursts through to perfection. There are very few good poems just as there are very many good novels. There are many, many bad poems and there are many, many bad novels too. It got to where I found a poem I loved and knew was perfect, and then I’d make a copy of it and stick it in an notebook and read it many times over, thinking about what it would have been like to write something like that. Poetry made a real impression on me, though my reading tastes and habits in poetry are restricted to a few poets and poems. But it was not only poetry that became part of my destiny. So too did the great travel writers, essayists, and natural historians—people like Edward Hoagland and Paul Theroux and V.S. Naipaul and John McPhee and many others.

In mid-life, I’d been talking about becoming a writer for some time. I typed a little mystery thriller and it was terrible. I was a lousy writer. I would remain a lousy writer for a long time. And then, after years of work, I wasn’t such a lousy writer. I could see the glimmer of a voice, a hint of craftsmanship, some pretense of competence. Later, I would become a fairly good crime novelist. What made it possible—how this destiny was arrived at—I realized, was not the long hours at the typewriter and all the hoping and ambition and lost sleep. It was, instead, all the reading, the ten thousand hours you hear about when people talk about conquering a musical instrument or a sport like skiing or baseball or chess, the ten thousand hours it takes to embed something deep inside your muscles and brain.

So, whether you’re interested in writing serious literary fiction; or, if you want to write fantasy, science fiction, or travel; or if you want to write a graphic novel about flying crazy people, you should consider spending a lot of time reading. And don’t limit yourself to one genre. Read as if your career depends on understanding how Hemingway constructed a paragraph, or how John McPhee put together his monumental geological history of the earth. Reading matters in the most fundamental way. Hemingway read all the time. Did Tolstoy read a lot? I’m sure he did. Does Stephen King read a lot? I imagine he does. Writers don’t read jealously. They read out of love and duty to the craft. You can’t go wrong, loving to read. And when you get around to facing that blank page, all that reading will have your back.

We come full circle to the creation of something from nothing. Destiny always begins in unknowing, a kind of “appointment in Samarra”.  The reading life, what fates some of us to make reading an existential obligation, is mostly a puzzle. What leads one to books? Perhaps history is involved, or social status, or boredom, or even the need to hide from an abusive father. As Virginia Woolf wrote in “Sir Thomas Browne”, “For the desire to read, like all other desires which distract our unhappy souls, is capable of analysis.”