We don’t have to tell you that the digital world we live in doesn’t lend itself well to reading books. Especially good books. You know those. The type that you have to chew on slowly. That sometimes require a dictionary or even a concordance. The books that hold weight and substance. The books that make a lasting change in your life.
Instead, we consume tweets, Instagram quotes, 700-word blog posts (like this!), easy reading self-help books, and beguiling fiction that are offered to us in a limitless buffet.
Laura Miller of Slate describes the trend this way:
Books are the intellectual equivalent of slow food; you know it’s better for you and tastes better, too, but you’re too rushed and frantic to care as you white-knuckle it through an avalanche of push alerts.
If we aren’t proactive, we may find those “slow food” books harder and harder to read and easier and easier to neglect.
As you can imagine, we find this trend disturbing for the general population. However, we find it exceptionally disturbing when writers only consume that which is easy. There is a tremendous benefit in doing the work of reading well. And yes, it can be work. Choosing C.S. Lewis over Danielle Steele is tough. Picking up Chesterton instead of the latest Fox News host’s release is hard. However, we believe you will see the benefit—not only in the knowledge you will gain—but in your writing as well.
Karen Swallow Prior, an English professor at Liberty University in Virginia, recently authored On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books, a book extolling the virtues of… well… reading well. In a recent interview with Christianity Today, Mrs. Prior explains how choosing good books can actually cultivate virtue in our lives:
Reading good literature well is in itself a practice of virtue. Literary art—as opposed to words strung together to communicate facts and information—requires the exercise of the imagination, the practice of patience, the delay of gratification, and the sustaining of attention and intellectual rigor.
These are all activities that build character in ways in which mindlessly scrolling through a Twitter or Facebook timeline cannot. So simply the way we read literature in contrast to other kinds of reading cultivates virtue. Additionally, what we read contributes to virtue when we read timeless works that convey universal human experiences that transcend time, place, and social position.
In the book, I show how we can learn about diligence from John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, patience from Jane Austen’s Persuasion, justice from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities—and much more.
So why does good reading create good writing? Here are 3 ways:
1. Imitation brings improvement
Raise your hand if you took music lessons as a kid. Now, thinking back to the early years of lessons, how often did your instructor ask you to compose your own piece of music? Probably never, right? Instead, you were given the great pieces of music to learn, practice, and eventually master. If you did reach the level of creating your own work, you were only able to do so because of the time you had spent with these great compositions.
Reading good writers has the same effect. We notice the vocabulary choices, the way the narrative is structured, how the emotions are evoked. And often these observations happen almost unconsciously (lest you think you must now read with a notebook and pen at the ready to take notes). No. As you ingest quality writing, your own work will naturally begin to imitate it.
2. Good books expand your perspective
No matter how hard you try, your book can only contain as much perspective as you possess as the author. It’s hard to write about public education if you were homeschooled or to write about the vegetarian lifestyle if bacon is your best friend. Good reading is a great way to broaden your horizons and “experience” life through the eyes of others. What is public education really like? How is it different than the stereotypes you may hold? What really motivates the vegetarian to choose that lifestyle? Reading opens the door on cultures, lifestyles, socio-economic situations, and upbringings, allowing you to write with confidence and clarity on these subjects.
3. A healthy diet is cleansing
Most of us have struggled through the first few weeks of a diet, as our body adjusts to healthier food and detoxes from the junk it is sorely missing. But then we reach the other side where we think, “I feel so much better! Why didn’t I do this a long time ago?”
Why do we feel better? Because our bodies are now being fueled instead of stymied. We are giving our system what it needs to perform at top efficiency.
Reading well does the same for our writing minds. It brings us back to what is true, virtuous and timeless. Karen Swallow Prior advises:
It is the challenge [of good books] that makes reading them so rewarding. They do more than kill time or amuse for a few moments. The best books linger in our minds and souls for days or even years.
For a while we may miss the hot takes and Facebook posts that used to occupy our reading time, but it won’t be long until we find our minds stimulated and our pens inspired.