THERE'S NEVER ENOUGH TIME TO READ ALL THAT MUST BE READ. We could spend our whole lives reading, Carl Sagan taught me in one episode of his show Cosmos, and still barely scratch the surface of a few shelves of the New York Public Library. So we struggle to read smart; we try to pick and choose which books will be most rewarding, which books will help our writing, which ones will educate us, which ones will keep us on the cutting edge. And sometimes we can be torn between which type of book is the right one.
After all, it's important to read the classics, to understand the great works out there, to learn from the masters. It's simply good for our souls to read the best works of the past, from Anna Karenina to Mrs. Dalloway. And there is still so much to be learned from these books about technique and style.
The other concern young writers may have is being on the cutting edge, understanding what kinds of writing are successful and of the moment. We don't want to write another Anna Karenina; we want to write the book of our generation, of our time, of the style that defines us today. So how do we balance our reading lists? How do we drink from the right wells?
Leave yourself time for the classics
One problem is that many classic novels tend to be heavier, denser, and - let's face it - longer than contemporary writing. If we want to get more novels under our belt just by the numbers, it's tempting to turn away from the classics and read more current works. There are so many nice, slim novels that we could read, after all. But to always take the path of least resistance is a dangerously limited view on the world of literature. Sometimes we need to get the fundamentals, to understand the references and allusions being made, and to understand what all the fuss is about. So I recommend leaving regular periods of time in your year that are devoted to the reading of classics. I often try to take on a big novel over the summer; I've used past summers to read War and Peace, Don Quixote, and David Copperfield. In some future summer, I'll finally take on In Search of Lost Time.
Keep Getting Excited by Contemporary Lit.
At the same time, it's important to stay in touch with the kinds of books that are being published today. It's not just for understanding the styles and techniques of the moment, though that's helpful too; it's also about participating in your current generation's art and thought. Think of the famous ex-patriate authors living in Paris in the twenties; they were sharing each other's work, critiquing and discussing the classics of tomorrow. In the same way, you should be thinking about what will become the next War and Peace. Reading contemporary lit is a great way to get excited about the literary community - and to think as well that your book could cozy up alongside these fellows on a shelf somewhere.