How Writers Read (Vol. 3)

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Photograph by Teju Cole

I’ve never really worried about writer’s block. I think of breaks from writing more as “installing important updates,” focusing on input rather than output. But lately I’ve been going through a period of reader’s block, a new and frustrating experience. I haven’t been in the mood to read books or even articles. This got me thinking about the reading habits of writers; I wondered how they differed from my own. So I asked thirteen questions to ten writers I admire, working in different genres, in an attempt to discover how writers read.

—Elisa Gabbert

7) When you finish a book, how long do you wait before you start another one?

ALICE BOLIN: I usually start a new one right away? Not sure, I’m not organized.

TEJU COLE: I have always already started. Starting is not the problem…

GRAHAM FOUST: I usually finish books at night and then start another one the next day, but …

RUTH GRAHAM: Usually a few days.

J. ROBERT LENNON: Unless I have some kind of big project looming in my corporeal life, I start something else immediately. Like, without even getting up from the sofa. If I know I’m almost done with something, I make sure the next one is within reach.

ADA LIMÓN: About an hour. Well, that’s not true. A few days? I just finished the Jack London biography, Wolf, three days ago, and since then I’ve been reading poems (Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen and re-reading Elizabeth Bishop letters), but I think I’ll start a new book today. I’m thinking it’ll be non-fiction. I’m on a huge non-fiction kick these days.

LEIGH STEIN: I’ll wait until the next day? But I’m always reading so many books at a time, I’m not sure this applies.

LAURA VAN DEN BERG: No breaks between books, save for periods when all my reading time is swallowed up by life/work craziness. 

8) Do you read multiple books at once?

ALICE BOLIN: Nooo. Maybe if they were different genres but I basically have a hard enough time paying attention as it is.

TEJU COLE: I understood your “finish a book” to refer to writing books. Is that what you meant? Anyway, same applies with reading. Lots of things happening simultaneously. I’m so bad with this I even do it with movies. I’m always halfway through about three of them. The ability to watch things on the computer has obviously worsened this vice.

DARCIE DENNIGAN: I’m always reading lots of books, but I almost never finish a book. I’ve read The Waves a million times but I’ve still never finished it. But I know I will someday. I know it’s there waiting for me.

JORDAN ELLENBERG: Yes, I’m always reading multiple books at once. Right now, not counting the two books just started on this plane, here’s what I can think of: Lorrie Moore’s new collection, Bark; a Haruki Murakami book, The Elephant Vanishes; The Athletic Revolution, a book of essays from the late 60s about the politics of college sports which apparently helped radicalize Leo Burt, the UW rower who was one of the four students who bombed the physics building, and who remains at large; Grace Paley’s collection of essays, Just as I Thought, which is actually almost finished; The Good Soldier, which I haven’t read a page of in maybe three months but I think of myself as reading it; Illywhacker, the Peter Carey book, which I’ve read all but the last 30 pages of but haven’t touched in a year or so;  Mathematics without Apologies, by Michael Harris, which isn’t out yet but which I’m going to blurb. If you read only one book of critical theory by a famous number theorist this year… is that a good blurb? Anyway, there are a lot more. Some I’ll finish, some I won’t. I now know, by counting, that there are books in my house I won’t read before I die, and this makes it seem less imperative to finish any particular book.

My reading practice is one reason I mostly don’t read electronically. Different books are in different rooms of my house, and one is in my backpack. Physical location tells me what book to read. On my phone there are lots of books and this makes it almost impossible to read any one of them.

GRAHAM FOUST: … I tend to have multiple books going at the same time.

RUTH GRAHAM: Never, unless one of them is for work.

J. ROBERT LENNON: Not if I can help it! Sometimes I take longer to finish something than I expect to, and I have to take a break to read other things—student work, books for class, books to review.

ADA LIMÓN: Oh yes, I don’t know if that’s terrible or excellent for my brain, but yes. I require different books for different emotions and different days.

LEIGH STEIN: Yes! Here’s what/when I’m reading right now: Trances of the Blast by Mary Ruefle (been reading it at home in the morning while working on poems), Immunity by Eula Biss (just started it yesterday on the subway), Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner (finally started this after I heard everyone talking about it for years…liking it so far, but not enough to have finished it before I started the Biss book), I Love Dick by Chris Kraus (too embarrassed to read this in public), and Mercury by Ariana Reines (picked this up and started reading when I was having an emotional day and wanted verse over prose).

LAURA VAN DEN BERG: Yes. Usually at least two. I’m a Gemini: I require variety.

9) Do you read with a pencil, i.e., do you take notes, either in the margins or elsewhere? Does it matter whether you’re reading with intent to review?

ALICE BOLIN: Pretty much always. It has ramped up since I’ve started writing more criticism, but generally the way I engage with something is by writing.

TEJU COLE: I write in the book itself, in ink often, or in a notepad, or on my phone. Note-taking is important to me: a week’s worth of reading notes (or “thoughts I had in the shower” notes) is cumulatively more interesting than anything I might be able to come up with on a single given day.

JORDAN ELLENBERG: If I’m reviewing, yes, I write in the margins and fold down pages. Otherwise, no. I used to, when I was really writing fiction; but then, I was reading every novel as a kind of seminar delivered by myself to myself, so I needed to take notes. Now, not.

GRAHAM FOUST: Yes, I usually read with a pencil or pen in hand or nearby, no matter what.

RUTH GRAHAM: When I’m reading for pleasure, I underline good lines and occasionally make dumb marginal notes like “Ha!” or a heart. When I’m reading to review, I underline much more and take copious notes in the back of the book.

J. ROBERT LENNON: I don’t take notes on books I’m reading for pleasure, but I do, copiously, for books I’m teaching or reviewing. I generally take the notes in a notebook and don’t write in the margins. I will sometimes write in an ARC I’ve been sent for review, but it still feels weird. I’m far more often annoyed than delighted by previous readers’ marks in used books, so I assume that my notations will be equally annoying to future readers, and avoid making them.

ADA LIMÓN: I never take notes in books. I have this weird thought that they’re incredibly sacred. I couldn’t possible write in one unless it was to sign it or inscribe it to someone. If I take notes, it’s on a separate piece of paper or in my journal. If I’m reviewing or if it’s part of a contest, I read it multiple times and usually spend a great deal of time reading it out loud. The notes go in an orange journal that I always carry around.

LEIGH STEIN: I read with a pencil or with tiny sticky notes if it’s what I consider a “work” book (like a grief memoir I read while working on my grief memoir). I might mark a non-work book with a tiny sticky note if there’s something I want to remember, but I also take “notes” by tweeting favorite lines. When I’m reviewing a book, I take more extensive pencil notes and read more critically (obviously) than I would otherwise.

LAURA VAN DEN BERG: I never take notes. I was so relieved to be done with school and thus have no desire to re-live anything that feels even vaguely student-y. The one exception would be if I’m doing a review. Then I do make notes as I go, mark particular passages, etc.

10) If you write reviews/criticism, do you read books multiple times before you submit the review? Do you start writing the review before you finish the book?

ALICE BOLIN: Usually multiple times. I feel like if I knew my material really well, the essay will just floooow out of me.

TEJU COLE: No, I read the book through just once, all the way to the end, making notes all the way, and then I review it. Who honestly has time to do more than that?

DARCIE DENNIGAN: Yes and YES

JORDAN ELLENBERG: One read only, and I don’t start writing the review until I’ve finished the book.

GRAHAM FOUST: I don’t write many reviews, but yes, I do read the book multiple times. (I’ve really only ever reviewed short books, mostly poetry, so re-reading has been easy to do.)

RUTH GRAHAM: I’m going to be so embarrassed if I’m the only one who doesn’t always read things twice, but I don’t. I go back and reread certain sections, of course, but not in a systematic way. I never start writing before I’m finished reading, but I’m taking notes as I go and starting to form ideas.

J. ROBERT LENNON: No, I only read it once, though I refer back often while writing. I’ll sometimes write bits of the review before I finish—general things like the qualities of the prose, or a summary of the writer’s previous work—if I get inspired and excited. I also try, when I write a review for a major publication, to read everything the writer has previously written, or at least read a little sample of each previous book.

ADA LIMÓN: Yes, I read it many times. I never start writing the review before it’s finished.

LEIGH STEIN: Usually during the first read, I come up with the lens or the theme or the question for my review, and then I go back for a second read to see if I can prove my own point.

LAURA VAN DEN BERG: Yes to reading more than once and I really try to not begin the review before finishing the book, though as I read I can often feel myself beginning to mentally shape a narrative out of my experience.

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See Volume 1

See Volume 2

See Volume 4

Alice Bolin is a poet and essayist living in Southern California. You can find her on twitter @alicebolin.

Teju Cole is a writer, art historian, and photographer. He is the author of two books: a novella, Every Day Is for the Thief, and a novel, Open City. He is the Distinguished Writer in Residence at Bard College.

Darcie Dennigan is the author of two poetry collections, Corinna A-Maying the Apocalypse (Fordham University Press) and Madame X (Canarium Books). She teaches at the University of Connecticut and is a cofounder of Frequency Writers: A Writing Community for Providence & Beyond.

Jordan Ellenberg is a professor of mathematics at the University of Wisconsin and the author of How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking, as well as a novel, The Grasshopper King.

Graham Foust is the author of five books of poems, including To Anacreon in Heaven and Other Poems (Flood Editions, 2013) and, with Samuel Frederick, the translator of Ernst Meister’s In Time’s Rift (Wave Books, 2012). He teaches at the University of Denver.

Elisa Gabbert is the author of The Self Unstable (Black Ocean) and The French Exit (Birds LLC). Follow her on Twitter at @egabbert.

Ruth Graham is a contributing writer to the Boston Globe’s Ideas section and a freelance journalist who writes for Slate, the Poetry Foundation, Al Jazeera America, and many others.

J. Robert Lennon is the author of seven novels, including MailmanFamiliar,and Happyland,and the story collections Pieces for the Left Hand and See You in Paradise (Graywolf Press). He teaches writing at Cornell University.

Ada Limón is the author of three collections of poetry, Sharks in the Rivers, This Big Fake World, and Lucky Wreck. Her fourth book, Bright Dead Things, is forthcoming from Milkweed Editions. Her work has
appeared in 
The New York Times, Poetry Daily, The New Yorker, and elsewhere.

Leigh Stein is the creator of BinderCon, a conference for/by/on women and gender non-conforming writers, as well as the author of two books: The Fallback Plan(a novel) and Dispatch from the Future(a book of poems).

Laura van den Berg is the author of, most recently, Find Me, a novel (FSG, 2015), as well as two short story collections, The Isle of Youth (FSG, 2013) and What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us (Dzanc Books, 2009). She is the 2014-2015 Faculty Fellow in Fiction at Colby College.