All writers, in some capacity, read. Rather, all people who tell stories also consume them.
Reading is by far the most traditional form of story consumption, though there are plenty of ways to do it now besides holding a physical book in your hand. The day I discovered the magic of audiobooks was the day I realized conquering my 2019 to-read list really was, in fact, possible.
Many people become writers because they started out as readers. I first became interested in stories when my dad started reading to me before bed as a child. As a kid, you discover something you enjoy — stories — and you become obsessed with that thing. You don’t just want more of it. You want to make your own.
I couldn’t tell you how many books I’ve read so far in my life if I tried. But I CAN tell you that there have been dozens of books, of the hundreds of my past, that have stuck with me.
Whenever someone sees my bookshelves and asks what my favorite book is, I always stumble. Not over the reasons why, but instead the title itself. Dozens of options go through my head. A classic, like To Kill a Mockingbird? The books my favorite movies are adapted from? Something from John Green? All of the above?
I usually give Looking For Alaska as my answer because it just happens to be the book I’ve reread the most (three times now, I think). But it’s just one of many books that have, over the years, changed my life.
I still remember reading a Sarah Dessen book for the first time. I liked Lock & Key so much that I read it from cover to cover in less than 24 hours. I tried to pass it along to everyone I knew. I couldn’t stop talking about it.
It was then, after reading that book, that I must have realized I wanted to write young adult fiction. I’d experimented in all kinds of genres up to that point, but it was that book — and Dessen’s other masterpieces — that awakened my passion for YA both as a reader and as a creator.
And when I read a Laurie Halse Anderson novel for the first time, I finally accepted the fact that I am a happy, optimistic person who enjoys writing extremely dark fiction. I’d tried to avoid it because I didn’t want people to judge me. That was pretty stupid. My name is Meg, I put my characters through terrible things for some dark and twisty reason and I’m not ashamed.
Books haven’t just made me who I am. They have allowed me to accept — and even love — who I have always been.
And this is why I read — to draw as much inspiration from the largest variety of stories as I possibly can when I tell my own, and to do so without shame. Of course I enjoy it; a storyteller is drawn to stories long before they begin writing for themselves. But most of all, reading motivates me to write, and so I do it as often as I can.
The best way to learn to write is, of course, to write. But the best way to learn how to tell good stories is by reading. This is how we learn the kinds of stories that entertain and interest us and those that don’t.
I couldn’t possibly choose just one book that has left a single mark on my life because the ones that have impacted me the most have all contributed equally to who I have become. Looking For Alaska showed me how to grieve. Tell The Wolves I’m Home gave me permission to be sad. The Hunger Games trilogy broke me and put me back together again in ways I hadn’t known a book could.
Every time I fall in love with a book — each time I discover a new story that speaks to me — I feel a little bit more like me.
Cherish your favorite stories. Revisit them. Love them. Do what you can to remind yourself why they matter so much to you. There is no law that says you can’t reread your favorite book 100 times if you want to.
But don’t limit yourself by only sticking to the stories you know and love. Having a favorite something doesn’t mean it has to be your only something. Expand your literary horizons. Every once in a while, grab a story you wouldn’t normally reach for. At least once a year I read a horror novel. Not my thing normally — but it’s such a different experience and worth the time. I always walk away having learned something I might be able to use in a story someday. Maybe.
Be brave. Try new things. This doesn’t mean you can’t keep reading and writing in the genres you love. But there’s also nothing wrong with challenging yourself. Comfort zones are comfortable, sure, but the more you know, the more you grow.
What are the best books you have read so far this year? Is there one book you always look forward to rereading every so often? What’s one book genre, as a reader, you will not touch?
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.