Literature Immersion Challenge
Update: February 5, 2017. A book a week given all my other goals isn't achievable. So I'm cutting my 2017 goal to 26 books. I need to keep up with my writing schedule as well as keep in touch with the thriller market, so this goal will have to fit realistically with my objectives.
I’ll admit it. I wasn’t an English major. Although given my high verbal SAT scores, Occidental college, my alma mater, was convinced I was, although I'd taken few English courses there.
A heavy reader yes. Science fiction, fantasy, thrillers and the classic pulps like the Conan and Doc Savage series. I read all the greats in my favorite genres including Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Tolkien, Frank Herbert, Heinlein, Ursula Le Guin, Arthur C. Clarke, Bradbury and many more. Read all of the Sherlock Holmes stories although they didn't fit with my usual preferences. A good number of these authors did write books that are now considered classics.
All through my childhood and young adult years, I was never without a book. I literally devoured them. But my usual choices didn’t represent the canon of English literary fiction. In prep school I read what I had to, without taking pleasure in the deep roots of our literary heritage. In study hall, I hid what I actually was reading.
In college I was a pre-law major. My Masters degree was in labor negotiations. Did I pursue an MFA in English literature? Obviously not.
During and after college, I kept up my previous reading habits. A book or two a week outside of required reading. Very little literary fiction. I have well over 700 titles in my Kindle library, and who knows how many books I read before Amazon revolutionized the technology of book delivery. In college and after, I did branch out to some mystery authors like James Lee Burke, Tony Hillerman, and Micheal Connelly who really have a special sense of place. I also like Cormac McCarthy who fits no particular genre.
If I categorized the hundreds of books I've read, there would be very few in the pure literary category.
So I can say without doubt that my literary education is not complete.
I’ve had a long term itch that finally called out to be scratched. I decided that if I want to be a writer, my previous education was missing something important, so I’ve set myself a challenge. For 2017 I’m reading at least a book a week chosen from the top 100 American novels from the 20th century forward. For 2018, I’m going to extend my reach to all of English literature. For 2019, novels that weren't originally written in English The ultimate goal is to read the top 100 novels in all three categories.
I asked family and friends for their recommendations as well:
Lucy Corin, Gary Braver and William Bernhardt. All successful authors and teachers in their own areas of expertise. They had unusual recommendations from their own experience. I've included their recommendations into my initial lists.
So what does the challenge have to do with my own writing?
I’ve been pursuing the writer’s dream from the first time I attended the Maui Writers Conference in 1999. I thought I wanted to be a fantasy writer. But I never could find my voice. Everything I wrote sounded derivative. Now I understand that most genre books are derivative in some sense. That’s why people read them. The key is to accept the norms and make something new of them. I finally settled on thrillers.
The literature challenge will undoubtedly give me new perspectives, and with effort, an enlivened toolbox that I can apply to my own work.
Reading the best 300 books written will touch the aware reader in so many ways. Use of effective metaphor. Transcendent descriptions of setting and place. Dialogue that sings. Theme beyond the simple good versus bad. Rich character development.
Everything that writers hope to achieve in their own humble efforts has been done in consummate form by the literary greats. How can you not learn by reading them?
I’m not sure how many successful genre authors were former English majors. But I suspect that every writer can benefit from reading the words of the Masters or re-reading them for that matter. I'm confident my own writing will be enriched.
Join me in taking on this challenge. Your brain will thank you for it. As will your readers. It's never too late.