'On Reading', by Ultan Banan. Ruminations on the written word.

On Reading

I don’t have the time to read much. I’m a writer with plenty of other things to do, so I don’t have the luxury. Do I miss it? I dunno. I spend so much time over my own words, writing, editing, reading and rereading, that usually the thought of sitting down and reading a book is the last thing on my mind. Audiobooks I can do. Last thing in bed at night I often fall asleep with a short story playing; I’ll rarely lie in bed with a book in my hand. Days, I like podcasts. I like the spoken word. I’m usually alone around the house so I appreciate the ‘company’ and enjoy getting out of my own head for an hour. But reading… it’s not my go-to escape. It’s not the sanctuary it once was for me. Is this the norm for writers? I don’t know enough of them to say.

I was always a reader. As a kid it was supernatural stuff and conspiracy and what-have-you, late teenage years I drifted into spirituality, searching for yourself and all that hoo-haa. Fiction came later. I was probably well into my twenties before I discovered the Beats and Bukowski, later Garcia Marquez and all the other unavoidable names. By the time my late twenties came around, I was so hooked on books that I decided to go back to uni as a mature student to study literature. That was perhaps the best and worst thing I ever put myself through. It was an onslaught. I had a core reading list of about twelve texts per semester across a variety of different modules, then all the secondary reading on top of that. After four years, I was burnt out. It was at least three years before I picked up a book after leaving, and maybe five before I looked at a work of fiction again. I just hadn’t the stomach for it. But eventually, I did. Ten years later, I’m now writing.

Look on any writing forum and you’ll see many people asking, What makes a good writer? and, How can I improve my writing? Invariably the answer is: Read everything you can get your hands on. Is this good advice? I don’t know. Would I be writing now if I hadn’t studied literature for four years? Maybe. Would I be a worse writer? Possibly. But do I think reading is a necessary part of being a writer? I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say, I’m not so sure. I’m not convinced it is. If the goal one seeks to attain in writing (or any art, for that matter) is an individual way of dissecting the world, a unique voice with which to question reality and power structures, then what good is filling your head with other people’s stories, other writers’ particular artistic outputs, visions, madness and follies? Can’t it all be considered mere taint? Why pollute your own vision by diluting it with someone else’s, and not just get on with purifying your own?

These are only questions. I’m not pushing any view, one way or the other. Do I feel that four years of cramming literature down my neck benefited me as a writer? Yes. Do I believe that I couldn’t be a writer now if I hadn’t done so? No. So I have to pose these questions to myself. As Will Self says, or at least I think he did – why read fiction at all? It’s just made-up stories, nothing more.

Good fun, though. Writing them is too. But if like me, you don’t really have time, then you might console yourself with the belief that the writing is more important than the reading. If you don’t quite believe it, you can always pretend. You make shit up for a living, after all.

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 ‘On Reading’, by Ultan Banan. Please note: flash fiction and all other content is the sole work of Black Tarn. Ask before republishing.

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