Friday 2 March 2007

On Reading

Writers are often asked to name the one book, which triggered in them the impulse to write. I am unable to pinpoint such a Eureka moment but the reading experience I remember best is Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame. For a girl just entering adolescence, this novel had everything: passion on a grand scale, dark eroticism (remember the priest's wanton desires for the fair Esmeralda?) and a powerful myth at its heart. I still consider this tale of beauty and the beast the most romantic book I've ever read.

At that time, I was already a serious addict: reading and writing with a voracious, if untidy energy. I wrote pages of overblown prose and read everything -- from Louis L'Amour to Hemingway -- with a joyous, uncritical eye. The child reader/writer is a tiresome child. Either exhaustingly precocious or seething and sullen ( I went through both stages), our imaginations run riot. We're the ones with the imaginary friends. And even as children we tend to prefer books to people.

Ah, books. Both potion and poison. Reading is the creative core of a writer's life, but your attitude towards reading changes as you age. Once the insidious thought enters your mind that maybe you could get published as well, innocence is lost. Of course, you'll continue to read in order to make sense of the world. And you'll always be seduced by the beauty of words. But now you're not just're competing. Every time you open a book, you are measuring yourself against the voice of another writer.

Despite the pinpricks of envy, writers rely on each other for wisdom. Whenever I'm writing a passage which, frustratingly, refuses to soar, I try to remind myself of what G.K. Chesterton wrote about angels and flying. They fly, he believed, because "they take themselves lightly..."

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