It’s no great secret that I’m a big reader. I’ve published several posts on this blog about my favourite books, and over on Instagram I run an account called @ruthreadsbooks which functions as a visual reading diary.
You can imagine then how pleased I was to find this recent study, which concluded that reading makes you a more empathetic person.
I’ve long-believed that being a keen reader makes me a better writer, and developing empathy is a key part of that. Whether you’re writing creatively and trying to put yourself in the position of a reader who wants to be engaged and entertained, or whether you’re writing copy and trying to make sure what you deliver keeps your client happy, the ability to see other perspectives and viewpoints is crucial.
That’s one of the reasons I’ve chosen to diversify my reading in recent years. I’ve moved beyond the narrow canon I was taught at school and university, and now try to seek out writers whose experience of life differs from mine. It’s also why I try to read a good mixture of fiction and non-fiction.
In 2018, I read 85 books, and the breakdown was:
- 19 by men, 63 by women, 3 mixed anthologies
- 82 new to me, 3 re-reads
- 56 fiction, 27 non-fiction, 2 poetry
My favourite fiction titles of 2018 were: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng; A Hundred Small Lessons by Ashley Hay; An American Marriage by Tayari Jones; Flames by Robbie Arnott; and Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms by Anita Heiss.
My favourite non-fiction titles were: Insomniac City by Bill Hayes; Homing Instincts by Sarah Menkedick; Findings by Kathleen Jamie; Hunger by Roxane Gay; and 404Ink’s Nasty Women Anthology.
Only one of those books was written by someone like me – fellow white Scottish woman Kathleen Jamie – but in every single one of them I found thoughts and experiences I could connect with. I felt empathy for the characters (or the authors, in the non-fiction ones), while simultaneously expanding my knowledge and understanding of people different to me. I can only see that as a good thing.
There are so many other reasons why I think it’s important to read widely if you want to be a good writer.
In addition to helping you understand people, books can help you understand places. When I found out almost six years ago that I was leaving the UK and moving to Tasmania, I started reading about it. Not Lonely Planets or Rough Guides, but fiction, poetry and journalism: writers like Danielle Wood, Richard Flanagan, Heather Rose, Christopher Koch, and Greg Lehman. The book ‘Hobart’ by Peter Timms, along with Griffith Review 39: Tasmania the Tipping Point, provided a first peek at the place I would soon be calling home and introduced me phrases and concepts such as the forestry wars, the MONA effect, and the Antarctic Gateway.
Those writers also gifted me some of the new vocabulary I would need to get by here. Pokies and cobbers, eskys and utes, servos and spruiking: they were all new to me, and took some practice before they would easily trip off my tongue.
I love the fact that being a reader makes you feel like part of a community.
There is a thriving online community: hundreds of thousands of people like me who share book reviews and recommendations on their blogs; who ask questions of their favourite authors on Twitter; or post photos of what they’re reading on Instagram. We talk about trends and patterns in publishing, lamenting the number of recent releases with ‘So and So’s Wife’ or ‘So and So’s Daughter’ as the title. We ask our friends in America why so many book covers there specify ‘A Novel’ on works of fiction. (That question has been answered by Eliza Brooke at Vox, if you’re interested.) We celebrate exuberantly when one of our own crosses the fence and secures a publishing deal themselves.
But as well as the Bookstagram crowd, there is also a multitude of offline communities built around reading. I have half a dozen friends across the world who I post books to a few times a year, and in exchange I receive their favourites. There is nothing lovelier than getting a book in the mail, knowing that someone has taken the time to choose, wrap and post those words to you, in the hope that they will resonate.
There are much-loved local bookshops where you can browse for hours, knowing that you’ll bump into a familiar face. There are Silent Reading Parties (there are in Hobart, anyway…). There are book clubs that meet over wine or coffee; wooden shelves outside schools and shops where you can leave a book and take a book; and bustling local libraries like ours where my 9-year-old likes to stock up for the school holidays.
If I’m feeling awkward at a social event, I still make a beeline for the bookshelves. If I’m running out of small talk at a dinner party, my ever-reliable fall-back is, ‘Have you read anything good recently?’. And when people ask what I’d like for my birthday, or for Christmas, the only answer I can ever provide is ‘a book, please’.
In a couple of weeks, a good friend of ours is launching her book Star Crossed. It’s about a character who writes horoscopes for a magazine, but starts tinkering with them in an attempt to make someone fall in love with her. The dress code for the launch is to wear an outfit that reflects your star sign.
As a reader, I’m very excited about this book launch. As a Taurus, I’m wondering whether not dressing up at all would be a good reflection of my love of comfort and general stubbornness. And as a writer, I’m almost certain it’s going to provide me with some great material.
Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash
9 thoughts on “Reading makes me a better writer: here’s why”
Yes! Reading is a wonderful thing. Too bad we don’t have reading communities here, but I still go to the bookstores to kill time. Books are just enchanting 😁
Where are you based? Maybe there’s scope to start something in/around your local bookstore?
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I’m from Indonesia, so there’s not many English books in the stores, resulting in very little offline reading communities, and they don’t have book clubs either 😔
I so, so totally agree. I’m lucky in that my daughter shares my love of books and I love seeing her learn from them and also be lost in other worlds in them. My step-daughter is not a reader at all and genuinely doesn’t see the point in books! Trying my hardest to change that but boy it’s hard work.
Wowsers, I would find that tough too, Penny! My son’s friends mostly love reading too, but there are a couple who don’t and I always wonder how they don’t spend half their life completely bored! What do you DO if you’re in a waiting room or on a plane and you’ve not got a book with you?!
This winter semester I enrolled in a french literature course/class at my local state university. I know elementary french. The french literature provides an abundance of french cultural and social settings. The language barrier is not as steep as I once thought. There are many contextual clues in french literature; I think I’m beginning to learn the french language better than before. Thank you for your insights.
As always, I enjoy your views. Just wondering Ruth, USA comedian Lily Tomlin once said, ‘if you can be well read you can be well viewed.’ Given the date of that quote, it’s likely her inference was relative to watching TV programs, but in today’s world would you count using handheld or otherwise screens and audible books for those with poor eyesight or who find it difficult to concentrate, as reading?
100% yes! The members of the bookclub I’m in use a combination of paper books, e-books and audio books, and it’s interesting sometimes how we take different things from the text depending on how we’ve read it. I’m not a personal fan of reading devices – I find it okay for reading news articles and essays, but for book-length texts I much prefer a paper book. But I love that kindles and audiobooks have made reading so much more accessible for many people, especially those with disabilities. Great if you’re travelling too, being able to load up one device with ten books rather than pay for excess baggage!
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