What a Writer Reads

This essay was originally published on April 19, 2010.

I have three books going at the moment, which is completely out of character for me. I’m usually a monogamous reader, but lately, I’ve become a cheater. The three are Made to Stick by Chip Heath and Dan Heath, On Writing, by Stephen King and The Blair Years, which is a compilation of diary excerpts from Alastair Campbell, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s press secretary and director of communications.

I’ve always wanted to read a book authored by someone named “Alastair”. Really, I am intrigued by most things political, but I don’t read many political books. The ones that have been penned about US politics in recent years have accomplished little else besides sacrificing the lives of innocent trees. British politics, and by default, Canadian politics, are far more interesting to me now. I need to educate myself on the inner workings of a Parliamentary “democracy” as opposed to the one I lived in for most of my life. And when you lived through the Bush Years like I did, you can use every diversion you can get your hands on.

Made to Stick is an interesting little nugget; it wants to teach me how to effectively communicate my ideas. I can use all the help I can get right now. On Writing is part memoir, part writing lesson, from a man who has authored many successful novels, none of which I’ve ever read. I’ve seen a few of the movies made from those books: Misery, The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption (I believe Shawshank is a short story), but there isn’t one Stephen King book on any of my shelves. Now that I have a bit of insight into the author, I may just have to consider reading one. Which one shall I choose?

The books a writer reads say a lot about his or her character. Poring over someone’s bookshelves is the equivalent of snooping in their medicine chest. I used to be a hardcore medicine chest “snooper” until I got nailed one time at a former colleague’s apartment. Now I rarely ever snoop. But, looking at people’s bookshelves gives you much more insight into who they are, and it does not have to be done on the sly. Most people I know keep their books in plain sight and don’t mind if you peruse their collections. That doesn’t mean I’m opposed to the occasional peek in the medicine chest; I’m more discreet about it now.

Reading has become a somewhat imperiled activity these days. Booksellers are dying on the vine because of all the new electronic reading gadgets that allow you to download books for about half of what it would cost to buy them. Amazon.com has effectively obliterated most of the independent booksellers. The chains that remain are bastions for posers like me who sit in their cafes banging away on laptops, or people who don’t want to splurge on that $65.00 cookbook, but will instead sit with a $5.00 coffee and copy recipes out of it.

I love books; I love how they feel, what they teach me, and how they smell. Yes, books have a scent. They can smell like musty, dusty old attics and basements, or like clean crisp cedar or sandalwood. I’m exaggerating that point a bit, but next time the opportunity presents itself, sniff a book; and then read it.

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