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The importance of reading

Reading is food for the mind. Eat — read —well, every day. Read a varied diet. Some books are for feasting, others for grazing lightly. Respect your hunger, feed yourself, and remember you are what you read.

Protect your reading. Give it a special place (a particular chair or sofa) or a special time of the day (or night). While reading may not feel urgent, it is essential. Reading makes your world bigger. Reading makes your writing fuller. Reading confers dignity on the evanescent inner life. Reading is not a luxury.

Some mordant maths here. If you read, say, one book a week, then a lifetime of reading will yield you 3,500 books. Compared to the limitless riches of literature, that figure is nothing. So choose with care what you’ll read. Don’t spend precious reading hours reading bilge-blogs and click-bait. They’re pants and you know it.

Be aware of the sheer, gorgeous abundance of books. Read widely, read outside your comfort zone. Seek out other periods of history, from cultures you do not know. Look for ancient authors or modern writers alike unknown to you.

Think about what (or who) guides you towards choosing what to read. Don’t be too influenced by a clever title or what is widely reviewed or promoted in bookshop chains. Ask friends and newly-mets what they are reading: ask people to tell you their lifetime favourite books. Read with others in a book-club, swap recommendations, swap titles.

Follow fellow-readers online for their cues if you have learned to trust their taste. Follow certain imprints which have published books you have loved. Follow your curiosity. Give serendipity a chance: look in unaccustomed sections of libraries, take a gamble in a bookshop. Go to a friend’s house and spend an hour alone with their books. In a library, read the first chapter of ten novels, and choose one. Let one book lead you to another book: when you read a quotation which draws you, follow it to its source. Books talk to each other: catch their conversation, and they will introduce you to their friends.

Read with different speeds. When I start a book, I start at a trot, paying attention without lingering. If it is very good, I slow right down, and notice every word, attend each thought. If, though, I am unsure what I feel, I continue at a bit of a canter until (and unless) it catches me. By the time I am seeing how many more goddamn pages there are left to read, it is time to stop. Be aware that some books have brilliant opening chapters (probably the proposal which persuaded the publisher to bite) and then descend into waffle. Once it’s gone rancid, like food, chuck it out. It doesn’t matter if a hundred authors like it, or if it’s the cliche of the month on the bestseller list, or if it’s won some literary prize. If you don’t like a book, protect your time and your enthusiasm, put it down and find something which works for you.

When you’re onto a good’un, read actively, think against the writer, even while you listen deeply. Read with a pencil, underline, annotate, argue back, kiss the page, hold certain lines close to your soul. Learn lines by heart, tell others, remember. And be generous in telling others the distillations of your own reading, because if you do those thoughts will be ever more deeply in written in you. I have kept notes of books I’ve read since I was 17, because I feared otherwise I’d forget. These notebooks now fill a whole shelf in my study. They are my treasure.

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Curate your own literary festival

Please read Jay’s exercise in conjunction with her tip (click here): Go on a reading adventure. Remember Picasso’s…

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