Tuesday, September 2, 2008


So, you're a fresh reader. Your vocabulary is not as extensive as you'd like it to be yet, you struggle with terms and objects and places in other countries/planets/dimensions, and you're not familiar with terms like Bildungsroman, Grandfather Paradox, or foil character. Do you only go with the books you understand now, or do you pick something that looks interesting but will be difficult to get through? Of course, there are people who stay the way they are and only go where they see fit. Like a co-worker of mine. He'll struggle to spell the word "sci-fi", much less put himself through a whole book of it. So he instead sticks with books like these:

True to the Game
Shaqeesha's Baby: The Trilogy*
Straight From Da Hood, Yo*
Memoirs of a Crackhead, as written by the person he stole them from*
Get Off My Government Cheese!: The Prequel*
Rick James, Bitch!: The official biography of the Bitch Rick James was talking about.*

*not real books

These are Urban books, or "Hip-Hop Literature" as Wikipedia would call them. And to add to what I put above, there are plenty of people that read these things because they want to, and not because they can't read anything else. With that said, these novels often appear absolutely idiotic to me, but to each their own.

I remember seeing things like the Lord of the Rings books selling millions of copies (at the time of the film release) and wanting to read it before the film came out, so I borrowed the trilogy from a friend. I could not, for the life of me, make heads or tails of what the hell was going on in certain parts. I'm a person that envisions what I read, and so all the passages with environment and nature talks of this kind of tree and that ridge above this creek drew blanks for me. If I were my other co-worker, I would've given up and stuck with being entertained by stuff like Max Tucker. But this didn't make sense.

Contemplating putting the book down made me feel like I couldn't go on to anything else because I quit that one. "It's too hard to read, no one's going to like this./But millions of people have already read and enjoyed it, so what are you missing?/well, what did they understand? Did they understand?" And it's not about the book itself, but the feeling like my intelligence has limits.

This was when I first started taking literature seriously. I eventually finished the book(s) and went on to other stuff that looked like it would challenge me. I've never wanted to just stay with what works for me. you imprison yourself in ignorance that way. I wanted to be able to read anything from classics to sci-fi to espionage. From a Doctor who trades his soul for mastery of the Dark Arts, to a boy playing in his poor Venezuelan park, to a CIA agent getting permission from Quantico to dig up files about a secret Indo-Vietnamese War.

My point is that I think it's better to make the mind adapt to the literary world, not to just stay with what you know. That's no good. Books are supposed to teach you, not tell you what you already know.

This same thing goes with writing. If I imagine something, I want to be able to portray it as realistically and accurately as possible in words. Note: realistic does not mean imitate the surface of life (only what meets the naked eye). It means the components of your story must interact with each other as they logically would given the totality of whatever properties you create for them. Whatever disorders and powers you give to somebody or something, you must imagine, in detail, how life would be for them. So, do not, as so many people have stupidly done, have a character suddenly be able to cause earthquakes or read people's minds and just go straight to thinking about how to use these powers without first being shocked that such powers exist.

At any rate, the truism of reading or writing what you know holds true, but that doesn't mean to only stick with what you know. This is pride in ignorance at its finest. Anything that you want to write about, you get to know. Any word you don't know, you look up. Reading maybe difficult for you now, but it's only because your mind is being cultured and your interests are widening. Many people have said this and I don't remember which or who, but "intelligence is the refining or strengthening of the soul". In researching, you may find that whatever work you're approaching goes deeper than you thought.


  1. Don't Feed The PixiesSeptember 4, 2008 at 3:57 AM

    Someone should definately publish the books you list!

    There's nothing wrong with reading "safe" novels and books - IE stuff you know you will like. Like there's a new Terry Pratchett novel out here today, and i know i will read it because no one else excites me as a reader quite like T.P.

    It's good to try new stuff though - and not necessarily a bad thing to give up on a novel if it's not your thing - but i agree that you sometimes have to perservere to learn something new.

    Lord Of The Rings is a very dense novel - though novel is the wrong word, because Tolkien spent his whole life creating that world...and in today's fast-paced world it would never get published without serious editing to speed things up, thus denying us a very rich and vivid world.

    As in all things there has to be a balance.

  2. hear hear! great posting. I agree wholeheartedly. I finish books even if I hate them, just because I want to figure out WHY I hate them. Or if I don't understand them - because I want to learn more about it. The same goes for movies, documentaries, restaurants, - all of it!

    (not to mention, science says that when you try new things you grow new neurons which keep your brain developing new pathways instead of sticking to their old ways)

  3. Agreed
    Excellent post

    I couldn’t agree with Honour more
    I can’t stand Not finishing a book.

    Sometimes I am rewarded
    As I was with Catch 22, which I began several times but could not get into.
    I was however, determined to finish it
    One day I decided to read more than just two or three chapters, and when I did, I couldn’t put it down.
    I finished it in two or three sittings

    Now this is one of my favorite books of all time

    As for books like War and Peace
    And The Lord of the Rings…

    Yes I waded through them the first time
    Completely lost

    But I returned to these stories and others again and again until I understood them
    I even came to love some of them
    And they have shaped my life

  4. Love your fake titles. A while ago, I was teaching writing in a prison--we had some really great writers in the class, some of whom were interested in seeing if the could get "urban" novels published. My co-teacher and I, both writers struggling to get novels published, noted with pained irony that their backgrounds as violent felons might make them more interesting to publishers than ourselves....

    As for "writing what you know"--I'm horrified every time I read synopses of new novels to see how many of them are not only about writers but take place in writing programs. Authors owe it to their readers and themselves to know more than that!

  5. The Clandestine SamuraiSeptember 6, 2008 at 9:21 PM

    Well, I'd finish a book even if it's hard to read. I would not finish a book that's crap.

  6. Excellent, thoughtful, and very well written. Thanks. I do occasionally give up on books, but try to read enough to give them a fair go. I suppose it's a bit like the 'acquired taste' thing — one has to trust the effort will eventually be rewarded, but it's a real bummer to find it wasn't.

    However, you have encouraged me to try reading things I haven't considered. Just got to finish my list of to-be-read books first.

  7. The Lord of the ring-books didn't appeal to me either, I must say. It's the same with the Da Vinci Code. Everyone was reading it, so I gave it a shot too, but man, how boring that book was. As I heard the librarian discussing with a friend of his; "Dan Brown is a good story-teller, but he writes no good." I agree with that.

    I find your latest post to be really interesting. I have tried so many times to get my youngest sister to be interested in reading. I don't know what do else... She doesn't want to read anything, not even this so called "Trash literature". :(

    I agree with what you are saying. It's important to read a lot, and read different piece of literature. I find this sentence to be really remarkable: "Books are supposed to teach you, not tell you what you already know." :)

  8. Great post! I've been getting stale lately with the literature I've been reading--too much non-fiction. When I read this post, I realized I need to wade through some complex fiction soon.


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