To further celebrate the importance of reading forever, we asked six bestselling authors to offer their own thoughts on the power of reading, and today we’re sharing their exclusive essays with you here.
Thriller-writer Lee Child tells a touching tale of getting a fan letter from a favorite childhood author, and forming a friendship with him as a fellow writer. Respected journalist and bestselling author Tom Brokaw highlights the importance that a strong sense of family, community, faith and education played in his upbringing, and how reading was fundamental to the development of his journalistic instincts. Legendary suspense writer Mary Higgins Clark reminisces about an early television program she watched 50 years ago that encapsulated the power that literature has to broaden horizons and transform lives. Tom Perrotta, the insightful chronicler of modern suburbia, writes of his current ‘Half-Century Reading List” of the important books that were published in 1961 as he closes in on this 50th birthday. Groundbreaking poet Nikki Giovanni offers the heartfelt story of her father winning her mother’s affection not with roses or a diamond ring, but the gift of a precious book. Finally, beloved romance writer Christina Dodd emphasizes how valuable voracious reading is to authors, and how it has helped her hone her craft.
We hope you enjoy these uplifting and insightful odes to reading from some of our most important literary voices.
The Fan Letter by Lee Child
They say the past is another country, and in my case it really was: provincial England at the end of the fifties and the start of the sixties, the last gasp of the post-war era, before it surrendered to the tectonic shift sparked by the Beatles. My family was neither rich nor poor, not that either condition had much meaning in a society with not much to buy and not much to lack. We accumulated toys at the rate of two a year: one on our birthdays, and one at Christmas. We had a big table radio (which we called "the wireless") in the dining room, and in the living room we had a black and white fishbowl television, full of glowing tubes, but there were only two channels, and they went off the air at ten in the evening, after playing the National Anthem, for which some families stood up, and sometimes we saw a double bill at the pictures on a Saturday morning, but apart from that we had no entertainment.
So we read books. As it happens I just saw some old research from that era which broke down reading habits by class (as so much was categorized in England at that time) and which showed that fully fifty percent of the middle class regarded reading as their main leisure activity. The figure for skilled workers was twenty-five percent, and even among laborers ten percent turned to books as a primary choice.
Not that we bought them. We used the library. Ours was housed in a leftover WW2 Nissen hut (the British version of a Quonset hut) which sat on a bombed-out lot behind a church. It had a low door and a unique warm, musty, dusty smell, which I think came partly from the worn floorboards and partly from the books themselves, of which there were not very many. I finished with the children's picture books by the time I was four, and had read all the chapter books by the time I was eight, and had read all the grown-up books by the time I was ten.
Not that I was unique - or even very bookish. I was one of the rough kids. We fought and stole and broke windows and walked miles to soccer games, where we fought some more. We were covered in scabs and scars. We had knives in our pockets - but we had books in our pockets too. Even the kids who couldn't read tried very hard to, because we all sensed there was more to life than the gray, pinched, post-war horizons seemed to offer. Traveling farther than we could walk in half a day was out of the question - but we could travel in our heads ... to Australia, Africa, America ... by sea, by air, on horseback, in helicopters, in submarines. Meeting people unlike ourselves was very rare ... but we could meet them on the page. For most of us, reading - and imagining, and dreaming - was as useful as breathing.
My parents were decent, dutiful people, and when my mother realized I had read everything the Nissen hut had to offer - most of it twice - she got me a library card for a bigger place the other side of the canal. I would head over there on a Friday afternoon after school and load up with the maximum allowed - six titles - which would make life bearable and get me through the week. Just. Which sounds ungrateful - my parents were doing their best, no question, but lively, energetic kids needed more than that time and place could offer. Once a year we went and spent a week in a trailer near the sea - no better or worse a vacation than anyone else got, for sure, but usually accompanied by lashing rain and biting cold and absolutely nothing to do.
The only thing that got me through one such week was Von Ryan's Express by David Westheimer. I loved that book. It was a WW2 prisoner-of-war story full of tension and suspense and twists and turns, but its biggest "reveal" was moral rather than physical - what at first looked like collaboration with the enemy turned out to be resistance and escape. I read it over and over that week and never forgot it.
Then almost forty years later, when my own writing career was picking up a head of steam, I got a fan letter signed by a David Westheimer. The handwriting was shaky, as if the guy was old. I wondered, could it be? I wrote back and asked, are you the David Westheimer? Turned out yes, it was. We started a correspondence that lasted until he died. I met him in person at a book signing I did in California, near his home, which gave me a chance to tell him how he had kept me sane in a rain-lashed trailer all those years ago. He said he had had the same kind of experience forty years before that. Now I look forward to writing a fan letter to a new author years from now ... and maybe hearing my books had once meant something special to him or her. Because that's what books do - they dig deeper, they mean more, they stick around forever.
Why I Read by Tom Brokaw
I grew up on the Great Plains, in small towns surrounded by vast swaths of the American prairie that were settled by Scandinavian and northern European immigrants who brought with them a strong sense of family, community, faith and education.
So much of their education came from books they brought from their native lands or books that told them about their new home. As a result, reading was a fixed and important part of their culture and it was passed along from generation to generation.
I was introduced to the joys of reading early by my bookish mother who in turn was raised by a father who so believed in reading that he suggested we keep a set of encyclopedias in the bathroom to absorb while engaged in other activities!
As we lived along the Missouri river I was particularly taken, from an early age on, with the adventures of Tom Sawyer and anything by Mark Twain. His waterway was the Mississippi but the sense of adventure was the same. Conrad is my idea of the ultimate adventurer of the mind.
As a ten year old I was a paper boy and I suppose that in some ways that led me to journalism for I voraciously consumed the contents of the newspapers before delivering them and they in turn led me to books on current affairs.
By the time I was in junior high and high school America was in the middle of a Great Novel boom – with Salinger, Mailer, Jones, Updike, Styron, Cheever, Baldwin and others of their generation building on the tradition of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner and Lewis.
It was a glorious time, and I inhaled all they published.
Later, in the Sixties I was riveted by the works of Hunter Thompson, Kurt Vonnegut, Larry McMurtry and Joan Didion, Tom McGuane and Jim Harrison, the great work from Vietnam, particularly Michael Herr’s Dispatches and Jim Webb’s fine post-war work.
As a political correspondent I have an enduring admiration for Woodward and Bernstein’s Watergate oeuvre, which changed political coverage forever.
We live in a changing world. The digital mega-explosion is all around us, in the way we communicate, do business, get information and, yes, even read books.
But that is a form. Reading is about content and the lessons thereof.
On long trips I often carry a slim collection of Chekov stories or something from the great explorers of the early 20th century. They remind me of the timelessness of literature.
I’ve just finished reading another biography of Lincoln in paper and print form. I am reading again from a long list of World War II history books, preparing essays for the opening of the 2012 Olympics in London.
They enrich me every time I open the covers of these great works.
If I were in a position to read only one book, forever?
Very hard. All Quiet on the Western Front? A contender. Anything by Twain? Of course. Herodotus? Magical, the original journalist. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich? A history for the ages.
Harper Lee gave us the great 20th century novel on race, morality and justice with To Kill a Mockingbird. It will never go out of favor.
However, as a product of small town America I think one classic has faded from view and needs to be revived: Main Street by Sinclair Lewis.
And if that doesn’t catch your fancy, I know a book about World War II, something to do with a great generation.
Tom Brokaw, one of the most trusted and respected figures in broadcast journalism, is an author and special correspondent for NBC News. Hired by NBC News in 1966 he anchored the “Today” show and was the anchor and managing editor of “NBC Nightly News” for 21 years. He has received numerous honors, has an impressive series of additional “firsts” and became a bestselling author with the publication of The Greatest Generation. His new book, The Time of Our Lives: Past, Present, Promise will be published by Random House on November 1, 2011.
Author photo credit: Mitchell Haaseth/NBCU Photo Bank
“Mary, is the light out?" by Mary Higgins Clark
It was a question my mother regularly called up the stairs to me after I had gone to bed. "Yes," I answered truthfully. The light was out but by holding the book up to the street lamp I could make out the words on the pages.
I have always had a book in my hand, not always to my credit. Sometimes it was tucked inside the geometry text book to the chagrin of the math teacher. I loved to baby sit for one family on our block. The father was a school teacher and in a right hand corner of the living room were floor-to-ceiling book shelves with his comfortable leather chair and hassock between them. As soon as the parents left and I was sure the toddlers were asleep, I dove for that chair and opened one of the books. In those days I was paid twenty-five cents a night for babysitting, but I would willingly have minded the children for free to have access to that treasure trove of reading.
Fifty years ago in the days of early television I watched a program that I have never forgotten. The plot was about an incessant talker at a men's club in England who constantly interrupted the other members when they were deep in their newspapers. That young man got so on the nerves of a wealthy older member that he challenged the chatterer with a bet. He would give him a million pounds if he could live totally isolated for one year with no one to talk to. The young man seized at the opportunity. The arrangements were made. He would move into an isolated cottage. Food would be delivered at the gate at a specific time every few days, but he must never speak to the person who made the delivery. If he ever required anything special, he was to leave a note for the messenger.
His first request was made after two weeks. He who had never let anyone read in peace wanted newspapers. Two weeks later he requested magazines. After a month he requested books. Any books. Books on every subject.
A year later to the day he left the cottage and returned to the club prepared to have his wealthy patron waiting with a check for one million pounds. Instead a trembling shadow of the man who had made the bet was awaiting him. "In these past months, I made a foolish investment," he said. "I am ruined. I thought I could salvage something to pay you, but I cannot give you one pence of the money I owe you."
The young man smiled. "You owe me nothing," he said. "It is I who owe you everything. Because of you I have dwelt in Greece and sat at the feet of Sophocles. I traveled in that desperate journey with Hannibal over the Alps. I marched with the Crusaders and sat at the Round Table with Arthur and his knights. I was a Revolutionary War soldier, numb with the cold, but believing in the cause of the colonies. I was with Robert E. Lee when he paced the floor of the Curtis-Lee mansion deciding whether he should lead the Federal or Confederate army. Hamlet and Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, became my familiars. I have shared their passions. I have lived in ancient Egypt and plunged the depths of the sea."
The young man, his voice filled with emotion, paused and put his hands on the shoulders of his now bankrupt and humbled friend. "Sir," he repeated "you owe me nothing. I owe you everything."
That long ago hour-and-thirty-minute television drama says it all about how I believe that reading is the key to discovering and understanding the past and present of this magnificent, troubled world in which we live.
The joy of reading has always been a constant for me. The joy of writing is an immeasurable gift from the gods.
Mary Higgins Clark has written thirty suspense novels. Her books have been published around the world and have sold over one hundred million copies in the U.S. In her latest novel, I’ll Walk Alone, a young woman, who is the victim of identity theft, finds herself accused of kidnapping and possibly murdering her own child. It is a classic Mary Higgins Clark story that will keep readers guessing until the last page.
My Half-Century Reading List by Tom Perrotta
I’m turning fifty this summer, and to mark the occasion, I’ve been re-reading some books that were published in the year of my birth. By chance, or some mysterious confluence of cultural factors, 1961 turned out to be a golden moment for American fiction. A glance at the nominees for the National Book Award of 1962 tells the story: Among the finalists are three landmark works still widely read today—Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, and the winner, Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer—as well as books by I.B. Singer, J.D. Salinger, and Bernard Malamud. That’s a pretty impressive roster, a Camelot-era literary dream team.
The two books I’ve tackled so far—Catch 22 and The Moviegoer—are both works I first encountered way back in high school. That was over thirty years ago, for those of you too lazy to do the math, and it’s been fascinating, instructive, and also a bit disorienting to return to them after so long. One thing I can say for sure: I’m a very different reader than I was back then, and as result, the books felt completely new to me, almost as if I’d never read them at all.
I’m a more critical reader now, that’s for sure, more skeptical and a lot harder to please. I wish this weren’t the case, but that’s what happens when the thing you love becomes your life’s work. I’ve spent the intervening decades creating my own personal canon and esthetic, and as a result, my opinions have hardened. I know what I like and what I don’t—with a little more certainty than is probably good for me—and have a lot less tolerance than I used to for books that try my patience.
I wasn’t like that as a teenaged reader. Back then it felt like a piñata had cracked open, and great books just kept pouring out—The Lord of the Rings, The Tin Drum, anything by Kurt Vonnegut, The Stranger, Invisible Man, hard-boiled detective fiction, Moby Dick, My Antonia, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Ethan Frome, 1984, Trout Fishing in America, Crime and Punishment, The Great Gatsby, The World According to Garp. I loved almost everything that came my way. And even in the rare cases when I didn’t, I tended to blame myself if I couldn’t make it all the way through an “important” novel. These days I’m more likely to blame the author.
I’m pretty sure I loved Catch-22 back in high school. I remembered it being funny, remembered that the main character was named Yossarian, and not a whole lot else. So I was unprepared for how plodding the narrative felt this time around, almost static, and how quickly the humor turned monotonous. It struck me that the passage of time hadn’t been kind to Heller’s masterpiece. His central conceit—the oppressive circular logic of Catch 22—has been so completely absorbed into the culture that it no longer seems surprising or even especially interesting. In a way, the book has been too influential for its own good: I’d watched too many episodes of M*A*S*H and read too many books about the Vietnam War that had borrowed from Heller’s bleak vision and in some cases improved on it. In particular, I couldn’t help wishing that instead of Catch-22, I was re-reading Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, a far more artful, emotional, and wide-ranging inquiry into the nightmare of war. Some books are ground-breaking rather than truly great, and I’m pretty sure this is the case with Catch-22.
The Moviegoer, on the other hand, was a revelation. From the moment I picked it up, I found myself captivated. It has the hypnotic focus and seemingly effortless forward motion that I’ve come to prize in novels, and that I don’t often find. Maybe it helped that my expectations were low. I’d been underwhelmed by Percy’s novel in high school, puzzled by its large reputation. And it’s true that not much happens. The Moviegoer is basically a character study, a first-person portrait of Binx Bolling, a New Orleans stock and bond broker whose utterly conventional existence conceals a deep internal rebellion against the values and pieties of the society in which he lives. “For some time now,” he tells us, “the impression has been growing upon me that everyone is dead.” Binx is a sort of adult version of Holden Caulfield, a deeply damaged man (there are hints that the damage is at partly the result of his experiences in the Korean War) who finds it surprisingly easy to pass as a successful and cheerful fellow until a family crisis occurs, and his refusal to “act humanly” creates a scandal. I’m not sure if Matthew Weiner, the creator of Mad Men, had Binx in mind when he conceived of Don Draper, but there’s a definite resemblance between the two characters, a kinship that enhances my appreciation for both the book and the show, and goes a long way toward explaining why the social rebellion of the 1960s spread so easily to the middle class.
One of the pleasures of being a lifelong reader is returning to the books we read in our younger days, both the ones we loved and the ones we didn’t. It’s like the literary version of a high-school reunion: everyone we meet looks different, and we’re a little different ourselves. Some of our old friends seem like strangers now, and some of the people we overlooked seem a lot more interesting than we’d realized at the time. In any case, it’s a privilege to have a second chance to make up our minds, and to measure the distance between then and now.
THE LIST—some classics (and two guilty pleasures) from fifty years ago:
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (1961)
The Moviegoer by Walker Percy (1961)
Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger (1961)
Ariel by Sylvia Plath (1961)
Thunderball by Ian Fleming (1961)
The Sweet Sickness by Patricia Highsmith (1961)
TOM PERROTTA, who Time magazine called "the Steinbeck of Suburbia," is the author of six works of fiction, including The Abstinence Teacher, Election and Joe College. His novels Election and Little Children were made into acclaimed and award-winning movies. His new book, The Leftovers, will publish 8/30/11, and Kirkus reviews has called it "his most ambitious book to date." He lives outside of Boston, Massachusetts.
A Day Pass To Heaven by Nikki Giovanni
Gus Giovanni + Yolande Giovanni
(1914-1982) + (1919-2005)
My father who seldom got things what I would call "right" hit the jackpot when courting my mother: he brought her A Bell For Adano which she loved. Or maybe she just loved the idea that a man would think to bring a book. Being on a winning track he gave her A Tree Grows In Brooklyn. She married him. And my big sister was born. I always say that the reason a couple has another child is that the first one needed if not perfection a bit of tweaking. My sister heartedly disagreed but they had me anyway. I may not have been an improvement but I did love, do love, to read. No matter what else is wrong in the world a book will take you away from it. My sister was a reader, too but she never liked to discuss the characters. My mother did. And so do I.
My favorite story that Mommy would read to me was King Of The Golden River. I recognize it now as a parable but I loved it. And would read it to myself when I learned to read. Gluck's brothers were so mean. I loved it that they turned to stone. Mommy's favorites were things like Gone With The Wind or All This And Heaven, Too. I was reading from her library by the fifth grade.
But it wasn't until the discovery of Toni Morrison that we both found a book we could talk about and truly explore: Sula. Mommy found Toni on her own and asked me, excitedly, had I heard of her? I was pleased to say, "I know her." Mommy and I read and reread Sula through the years.
As Mommy was drifting away from this world I sat on her bed and wrote poetry to ease the pain of losing her and alternatively read Sula to her aloud until my tears blocked the words. We had come full circle. I'm sure my father, who didn't get things what I would call "right" very often, got a day pass to Heaven and was waiting for Mommy with a cold beer and a book for them to share.
Poet, activist, mother, and professor, Nikki Giovanni is a five-time NAACP Image Award winner and the first recipient of the Rosa Parks Woman of Courage Award. She also holds the Langston Hughes Medal for Outstanding Poetry. The author of 27 books and a Grammy nominee for The Nikki Giovanni Poetry Collection, she is the University Distinguished Professor of English at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg and an Oprah Living Legend.
Beloved romance writer Christina Dodd brings our Read Forever guest author series to a close today, with a post emphasizing the value of voracious reading, and how it has helped her hone her craft. It’s refreshing to see just how important reading is even to an accomplished, bestselling author, and really makes a case for reading forever regardless of your profession!
We hope you’ve enjoyed these guest blog posts from Lee Child, Tom Brokaw, Mary Higgins Clark, Tom Perrotta, Nikki Giovanni and Christina Dodd, and we look forward to hearing more from you about why you’ll read forever!
Christina Dodd Tells You the Secret to Writing a Book
Do you want to write a book?
Then you need to know the one, really important secret that will help you get published. Brace yourself. Here it comes …
You need to read. A lot.
I was appalled when I read this statistic: Stat: Eighty percent of Americans want to write a book, but only fifty-seven percent have read one in the past year.
How is this possible? If you don’t read, how will you be able to write a book? How will you know story structure? How will you understand the character archetypes? How will you discover what moves a reader to laughter, to tears, to love, if you don’t take that journey yourself?
In grade school, I was one of those snot-nosed kids who learned to read quickly and never stopped. (Whenever I say this, a lot of my readers wave their hands and say, “I was a snot-nosed kid, too!” Yes, us readers hang together. J ) I read indiscriminately all the way through high school — classics, Harlequin romances, Broadway plays, the Little House books, you name it. I would steal the time from homework and TV and friends, and spend the time reading. (I did not have to steal the time from sports — I was also one of those snot-nosed kids with glasses and braces, and I ducked when a baseball came at my face.)
Like everyone else in the world, I grew up and life interfered (work, husband, children.) I had to pare down the time I could spend reading, so I concentrated on what I loved best, which was romance: historical and contemporary, first person or third person, suspense or paranormal. As long as the plot appealed to me, I didn’t care when or where it was set, I’d read it.
With romance, what’s not to like? The relationship between one man and one woman holds center stage, and that’s always good for a laugh. A woman wants things like world peace, a clean house, and a deep and meaningful relationship based on mutual understanding and love. A man wants things like a Craftsman router with attachments, undisputed control of the TV remote, and a red Corvette which will miraculously make his bald spot disappear.
Eventually all this romance reading gave me a brilliant idea. I thought, “I can write a book! How hard could it be?” thus proving I had two of the attributes of a writer — a large ego and very little sense of reality.
Actually what all those years of reading gave me was a natural sense of how plot, characterization, motivation and conflict work together to create a story. Reading taught me to write in a way no writing lessons or writing books could do.
I wrote for ten years before I got published, and during that time reading got to be guilty pleasure. It was tough to justify the time spent reading when I should be working on a writing a book in the hopes of someday grabbing the gold ring — or at least the signed check.
But not only did reading teach me how to write, I found that putting words in fed the flow of words out. It seemed that reading fed the creative well and if I didn’t read, I’d find myself staring at a blank computer screen with no idea how to fill it.
Finally, after ten years of trying, I got The Call and my first book was published. Being a published author includes demands on my time I’d never imagined: publicity and email and blogging and touring, things I’m thrilled to do because they mean I’m a popular author. But my reading time has been seriously compromised and that breaks my heart.
But while writing is the best job in the world, it’s still a job. I work fifty weeks a year, eight hours a day, and if I have a new book out, that eight hours a day becomes ten or twelve.
Reading a book immerses me in exotic worlds and different sensibilities. For me, a book is a vacation from real life.
So there’s the secret to writing a book.
Read to learn the basics of pacing and plotting and what’s involved in creating a successful suspense. Read to learn how to craft a character arc that takes your heroine from downtrodden maiden to triumphant woman. Immerse yourself in the kinds of stories you want to write — and then put your rear in the chair and write them.
New York Times bestselling author Christina Dodd builds worlds filled with romance and adventure and creates the most distinctive characters in fiction today. Her forty-eight novels — paranormals, historicals and romantic suspense — have been translated into eighteen languages, won Romance Writers of America’s prestigious Golden Heart and RITA Awards and been called the year’s best by Library Journal. Dodd herself has been a clue in the Los Angeles Times crossword puzzle (11/18/05, # 13 Down: Romance Novelist named Christina.) Her legions of fans always know that when they pick up a Christina Dodd book, they know they’ve found a story “For the wild at heart!”
Author photo © Sigrid Estrada
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