Though I'm currently focusing on following my "adventures" through the writing process on this blog, I thought it would be a good idea to devote a post (or a few posts) to why reading is so important, especially in this day and age.
There is a bit of a reading renaissance currently going on in this country. I credit the rise of e-readers, tablets, and other devices that reduce entire libraries to the size of a small notebook, and allow people to take them wherever they go. The Kindle app for smartphones is so great in part because it syncs your progress among multiple devices, allowing you to take the book you're working on
That's great for an aspiring author, especially one strongly considering self-publishing. If people are reading more, then they'll want more content, and I'm happy to try to fill the void.
But e-readers and bathroom shenanigans aren't the order of the day; writing is. Allow me to start with an anecdote.
I learned to read early in life, when I was around three years old. Credit Chesterfield Day School's Montessori-based approach, as well as a couple of loving parents that read Jules Verne and other books to my brother and me even when we were only one or two years old for my jump start in that area. As a kid, I eventually developed a routine: wake up early (around 6:00 am, every day, a habit that I have since thoroughly rejected), watch Sportscenter and read the Post-Dispatch sports section. This is when I was like six years old, and I still remember enjoying Bernie Miklasz's columns and Rick Hummel's articles about my favorite team at the time, the Cardinals. I'd devour Sports Illustrated for Kids whenever it arrived, especially loving the cheesy, cardboard cut-out cards that they included with each issue.
Even though most of that stuff was far from Shakespeare (and I apologize to Bernie if he comes across this; I don't mean you, big guy!), I'm still convinced that all of that reading, that day-to-day repetition and early exposure to the English language in written form, is a large part of why (I think) that I can write well in my adult life. Even the sports page (usually) has correct grammar, spelling, and sentence construction, and occasionally some real gems of stories, to boot. All of that somehow becomes lodged in an impressionable young brain by osmosis, and can't help but make a positive change in your own writing.
Eventually, I graduated to Sports Illustrated for adults, and then even some full books without "illustrated" in the title. In high school, I began to explore some of Tom Clancy's work, the dense thrillers still written accessibly enough to get my mind racing with vivid scenes of the action. In college, I tried Brett Easton Ellis, though even my sick mind couldn't stomach the end of American Psycho; no knock on Ellis, by the way, it's a fantastically-written book.
The point is that I enjoyed reading in my spare time; bringing the worlds in words to life was (and is) like having my very own movie theater in my head, unconstrained by actor availability, budget, and cinematography. As a movie buff and someone who enjoys stories, that is very appealing.
Then I became a lawyer, and all I did all day was read and write. I would pour over (generally boring) cases and reference materials, synthesize what I read, and spit out a (probably equally boring) summary or brief on what I had read.
All of the boring reading and writing took its toll, and I found myself going without pleasure reading (not...like...reading erotica or something like that--reading for pleasure) for months at a time, despite thoroughly enjoying reading all throughout high school, college, and beyond. The last thing I wanted to do at the end of the day was more reading; far better to anesthetize myself with vapid reality shows and tons of Civ IV (a fantastic game that I still enjoy on the weekends, but I digress...). Reading became a chore, something that was distasteful because I spent too much time reading flat, boring words that refused to come to life. Sure, all of the cases had unique facts, and some even were a bit colorful, but at the end of the day, the words simply didn't jump off the page and into my head; the mental image I was invariably left with was one of the judge writing a boring legal opinion.
As I read less, my creativity was smothered, and I eventually became the boring drone that I was destined to be in that field. Like anything else, creativity must be grown and nurtured, watered, given plenty of light, and allowed to thrive. Or maybe that's plants...
At any rate, toward the end of my time as a lawyer, I picked up a few books and began to read again. Instantly, that hour or two that I could steal away with a book became my favorite part of the day. The movies in my head weren't as vivid anymore, but I could still put the scenes together, and generally enjoyed the fiction I read.
Once I quit the law (hopefully for good, but I guess you never know--I'm still paying my bar dues), I began reading again for pleasure more frequently, and over time, that creative voice in my head began to return. Like a fourth season episode of Bewitched, the pictures started to gain color and intensity, and my mind started to race with anticipation at what lay around the next corner.
My writing also began to get better, though I don't know if that's readily apparent from my archives. The exposure to creative language once again gave my own mind permission to be creative after a few years of being choked-off from any kind of creative spark.
I wish the answer to the question "why is reading so important?" was a little neater, and could be packaged in a pithy little platitude, but I'm sure that such an attempt would surely ring hollow. Reading teaches people to be better writers at a time when our language is so badly misused, yet more crucial for communication than ever with so many ways to reach people on the other side of the globe. It forges new connections in your brain like one of those old-school phone switchboards, and those connections build upon each other, giving you a facility with and mastery of the language that's difficult to achieve without all of those hours spent reading. It makes you a more interesting person to others, especially when you can find common ground over a book you've read.
Reading is also key to becoming a good listener. A book is basically a form of one-way communication; the author tells a story or makes a point, and your job as reader is to process that information and flesh out the story, or think about the point the author is making. In a world that is becoming far too reliant on passing judgment without listening or reading someone else's viewpoint, or without considering that someone else may have a good point that you're needlessly tuning out, becoming a good listener, a good processor of information, and just a plain old good citizen involves reading more, and being able to process what you read more efficiently.
But most important for me is keeping that flame of creativity lit in my own head. Not to say that I am one, but at a time when this country needs visionaries perhaps more than any other period in its history short of the Revolution, more people need to tune their imaginations to allow them to come up with the "next big thing," and maintain America's position as a global leader in innovations.
All of that is a long-winded way of telling you to pick up a book, to take back reading if you've previously enjoyed it but lost your way. Read to your kids and allow them to fully develop the potential of their imaginations. Make it a habit to read and pass the habit on to the next generation. Without reading, we'd become a society doomed to repeat its own mistakes, focusing on quick hits of information with whatever spin or slant fits our own viewpoint. In short, we'd become a group of drooling, thoughtless, unimaginative morons.
D.J. Gelner covers the Rams beat for insideSTL.com, and is an aspiring author. Follow him on twitter (@djgelner) or facebook (here). E-mail him at email@example.com. You can also listen to his podcast (Bottle and Cans) here.