Salinger on Reading to Write

We probably have a somewhat nuanced view since we work with writers, but it does seem like everybody is writing these days and nobody’s reading. For sure, the number of people reading books is shrinking. And who really reads all these blogs and other material that is posted on the Net?

The author J.D. Salinger, who died last week, was already missing a certain kind of reader in 1963 when he wrote:

“If there is an amateur reader still left in the world–or anybody who just reads and runs–I ask him or her, with untellable affection and gratitude, to split the dedication of this book four ways with my wife and children.”
— J.D. Salinger (Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction)

If readers were rare 50 years ago, today they are probably on the verge of extinction. There are so many new, electronic ways to fill time, including it seems word processing or…writing. But Salinger also reminds us how integral reading is to the act of writing.

“If only you’d remember before ever you sit down to write that you’ve been a reader long before you were ever a writer. You simply fix that fact in your mind, then sit very still and ask yourself, as a reader, what piece of writing in all the world Buddy Glass would most want to read if he had his heart’s choice. The next step is terrible, but so simple I can hardly believe it as I write it. You just sit down shamelessly and write the thing yourself. I won’t even underline that. It’s too important to be underlined.”
— J.D. Salinger (Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction)

(Note that Salinger does not substitute formatting for using his words – “too important to be underlined.” But that is another blog for another day.)

A fair number of the writers who come to us have never been readers. We sometimes wonder how much better their work would be if they were.