Over the course of a lifetime—from the time as children when a parent or adult begins reading books aloud to us to the time when we can read to ourselves—a writer is likely to read hundreds, if not thousands, of books (as well as the back of a lot of cereal boxes).
Picture books, comic books, ghost stories, mysteries, adventure tales, pirate plots, science fiction, westerns, romances, classics, plays, poetry, literature—it all becomes part of us as we rise early or go to bed late, covering our flashlights with our bed sheets so no one will catch us secretly reading. As long as there are words and pages to turn, we will read and read and read.
Now imagine this. Imagine each book that we ever read or heard read aloud to us has found a place on a metaphorical library shelf that exists within us, a resource hidden inside every writer to sustain us for a lifetime.
Imagine—all the books we ever read! From The Cat in the Hat and Goodnight Moon and Where the Wild Things Are to Charlotte’s Web, Robin Hood, Amber Brown, The Catcher in the Rye, Moby Dick, Crime and Punishment, Pride and Prejudice, The Iliad and Odyssey, A Room of One’s Own, The Scarlet Letter, My Antonia. Any book that we ever picked up and spent time reading, it’s there, sitting on a library shelf and catalogued inside us.
Imagine, too, when it comes time for us to revise our work—whatever pages that we are writing to tell our stories, our poems, our plays—we subconsciously hear the sounds of these books, the cadences and music and rhythm of the words, the pacing of the plots, the feelings that we had for the characters and the settings.
These elements of a story stay with us long after we finish the last page. And they become our guides in revision, a kind of background music, so that as we read our own words, we compare them—their cadence and rhythm and music—against the music of words stored in our inner library, the words that guided us from one book to another, that made us into readers and then into writers.
I used to think that reading was just about reading—about the joy of holding an imaginary world in one’s hands and immersing oneself in that world—but now I wonder if, as a writer, reading involved more than reading. Certainly it involved reading for pleasure, but I suspect there was also a question gnawing at the back of our minds as we turned the pages: how did the author do that, pull off that trick, make that magic? We read for pleasure, but also for understanding how to construct a story.
Of course, there aren’t any physical books inside us. But it’s as if the memory of every book that we’ve ever read exists in some way inside us. It's there, available from memory, as we write and revise our manuscripts. And we can hear the background music of these other books as we revise, listening and looking closely at every word, every sentence. It’s as if there’s a monitor of sorts, a revision meter, lets call it, and it sends up a flag whenever a word, sentence, character, or plot needs more work. A flag goes up, I suspect, based on our understanding of the relationship of what we’ve written to all the words that we’ve ever read.
Perhaps it’s a certain sensibility that we cultivate by reading. We gain a sense of taste. Each of us acquires our own sense of taste, and we fine-tune that sense of taste by reading, culling what we love from what we find distasteful, uninteresting. And it’s our sense of taste, which becomes more sophisticated over the years, thanks to all our reading, that helps us write the things we need and want to write.
It can take years to trust one’s sense of taste, one’s love of a certain sound, a particular pace, the way a story is told. And I suspect that long after we’ve written our stories, we will be able to see in these stories some of the books that we read that influenced us along our journeys, and that we still hold safe, well-worn and beloved, inside us.