I’ve made a claim that there is an intimate connection between the craft of writing and the act of reading.  You might question this claim on empirical grounds.  Surely, there have been writers whose craft is first rate, but who haven’t read much.  Maybe there are natural geniuses whose writing skills are innate and who come by their voice, style, authority and narrative skills the way a genius like Mozart came by his piano playing.  This argument, of course, assumes that Mozart played naturally, and never learned a thing from listening or watching another piano player with skill.  We’ve also heard about naturally talented chess players who are very good as young children, who seem to have a hidden ability that is expressed over the board that hovers about them like magic.  I think it is true that there is natural talent somehow inherent in one’s genetic makeup.  I think it certainly true that some rare talents like Mozart’s or Bobby Fischer’s or maybe Joe Dimaggio’s talents are latent, and are later expressed and seem somehow natural and undiluted by practice, observation or empirical input.  This seems shortsighted.  If one knows enough about Bobby Fischer, one knows that Bobby certainly had a natural talent. Perhaps he had the ability to see spatially in a way that most people don’t see, or had a wonderful memory, or a super-refined manner of focusing on mathematical objects that he translated into moves and positions on the board in front of him. But I assure you that Bobby Fischer spent thousands of hours learning from the games of the Great Masters who’d played the game before him.  He studied Capablanca and Steinitz and Lasker and Alekhine, and he studied all the games of the Russian players who were at that time the best in the world.  I’m pretty sure that Joe Dimaggio, blessed as he was by natural grace, balance and a surfeit of hand-eye coordination, spent hours in the batting cage, learning to hit.  And where did the little Mozart’s ability come from?  He was a genius, but he practiced the piano until his hands bled, I bet.

Here’s what Virginia Woolf said about reading in “Notes on an Elizabethan Play” (1925):

For we are apt to forget, reading, as we tend to do, only the masterpieces of a bygone age, how great a power the body of literature possesses to impose itself; how it will not suffer itself to be read passively, but takes us and reads us; flouts our pre-conceptions; questions principles which we had got into the habit of taking for granted, and in fact, splits us into two parts as we read, making us, even as we enjoy, yield our ground or stick to our guns.

From this piece by Virginia Woolf, we can see that reading for her was not just an “act” she performed.  Instead, she says that—literature takes us and reads us.  IT WILL NOT BE READ PASSIVELY.  This then is the great, grand lesson, that reading is not a passive act, but that it requires passion and skill.  For a reader to be transported by a work, he or she must not simply be swept along by the narrative power of the work, or by its unique voice, or by its ideas or principles.  Instead, the reader must give up being taken for granted and realize that challenges are ahead, that taking things for granted goes out the window.

Therefore, every serious reader who loves books is simultaneously with his reading involved in a life work that involves craft and imagination.  The reader always has a history and books are always reading us.  By that is meant that books keep their eyes on us, daring us to come along and pay attention.  That’s why we all start with the simple things, comics, Hardy Boys, adventure stories about buried treasure, ginger bread houses and nursery rhymes.  We graduate to different books, books a bit more complex, daring, unruly.  We read books our parents don’t approve of, we go “off script”, and sometimes we read books even the government doesn’t approve of.  Real readers, those who’ve lived the life and developed the craft have a reading history, just as they have a romantic history, a commercial work history, or a criminal past.  What was I reading during the Vietnam War, when I was in college?  Why, Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night and Existential Errands of course.  I was grinding my way through college philosophy and economic history, and I was toiling with Crime and Punishment, every last dense page.  When I moved to San Francisco to go to law school, I read On the Road by Jack Kerouac.  Later, during the Patty Hurst Kidnapping, I was reading Dharma Bums and Desolation Angels, lying on a mattress on the floor of a dirty room in north Oakland, California, not four blocks from where Patty was taken by the Symbionese Liberation Army.  Like any swept-away reader, I can tell you what I was reading during the milestones of my life, just as much as I can tell you what I was reading during the days I contemplated suicide.  I can tell you the books I read when I was in love and those I read when I was most alone, and what each one meant.

The lesson is that reading is a craft, a craft one must master before one can begin to master the craft of writing.