A Reading Manifesto

Writer Austin Kleon proclaims 33 principles by which he conducts his reading life.  How many of them are your principles, as well?

I cannot follow # 2, although I’d like to.  Number 3, however, has been the story of my life.  I grew up reading everything, including the backs of cereal boxes and the ingredients printed on the baking soda box.  My homeroom teacher in middle school would often put a book or a newspaper on a desk just to see if I would go over and read it.  I always did.

Number 11 tells me to take notes.  I do.  I mark passages and every once in a while, I will copy down a great one.  I need to do that more often because it will help me shape my own sentences.  There is the risk of becoming an unconscious (or conscious) plagiarist later on after the words seep into our bones, but the risk is small among writers who know what they are doing.  I write in physical books, also, although not as much as I used to.  If you saw the copy of Merritt Hughes’ edition of Milton’s Complete Poems and Major Prose that I used all the way through college and graduate school, you’d be astonished.  Almost every line of Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained is marked, and notes are everywhere.  They all mean something, and I can still tell what they mean.

In all honesty, I will ignore the advice of # 17.  I will respect the Canon for as long as I live.  I know, though, that the Canon is a living, breathing thing, just as we are, and it will always be changing, as writers earn their way into it by illuminating the substance and style of our lives.  If, to you, a book is really, really good, guess what?  It’s part of the canon; you’re just among the first to have put it there.

Number 26 is now my New Year’s resolution for 2015.  I need to visit an actual library more often.

By all means, follow # 27, and let books lead you to other books.  But do more than that:  read bibliographies as part of your life as a writer.  There’s an art to summarizing a book or article in just a sentence or two, and you can learn a great deal about how to make your own language concise and precise by reading them.  My undergraduate teacher, Calvin Huckabay, was Milton’s principal bibliographer over the span of his academic career, and he did us all a great service by preparing those guides through the forest of Milton criticism.  John R. Roberts’s bibliography of Donne is also worth studying for the crispness of its entries.

I live my life by # 30.  If somebody wants a book I own, or a movie, I’ll buy him his own copy.  If I am done with a book (that is, finished with it intellectually or emotionally), I will give it away if I believe the new owner will value it.

Allied to # 30 is # 32:  reading, in and of itself, does not make us better people.  Giving that book away–entrusting it to someone who is likely to live on after us–just might.



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