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Read or Write? Which Would You Choose?

Field
By Kimberly Field

A writer friend lamented that as he improved his craft, he saw that 99.99999999 percent of books are garbage. He eviscerated the mega-sellers you see everyone reading on airplanes – How was that ever published? John Grisham, Stephen King, even William Faulkner – Hacks! “It’s gotten so I cannot read anymore,” he wailed.

His harangue stayed with me. What if I could no longer read? What would I do if presented with this Faustian bargain: Become a brilliant writer hailed even by my fussy friend, or curl up with a good book? Can’t do both. It’s either write or read.

The choice is easy for me. Reading wins by a mile. I choose reading even if it means I never write another word, not even a post-it note.

I love reading more than any activity in life. Crawling beneath the covers with a riveting novel is one definition of good in bed. “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” sent me wandering the damp, empty streets of Savannah in the humid dawn of my dreams. I made the mistake of opening Tony Hillerman’s “A Thief of Time” right before bed and was delightfully creeped out in a moonlit desert canyon, reading what I believe might be the best opening scene of all time. That night, I skulked through my rocky dreamscape to the eerie whistle of Kokopelli’s flute.

The authors of books I cherish teach me more than I could ever hope to learn in writing class. Well-wrought characters inform my own work. Miller Packard in “Train” mesmerized me. For months after I zipped through his story, my writing was tighter, grittier and if someone needed killing, I didn’t hesitate. I pulled for the German spy when I read “The Eye of the Needle.” Sure, had he succeeded he would have totally hosed up D-Day, but hey, that made him even more fascinating. In him, Ken Follett created a character who we understand is an honorable man who happens to be on the wrong side. Like Miller Packard, Follett’s Die Nadel kills people on occasion, and the story is better for it.

Sometimes, books teach bittersweet lessons. I grew up with my father’s stories of the Great Depression. Usually, they prefaced his admonishments to pick up my clothes or care for my toys. Yeah, yeah. Depression. Bad. I never truly got it until I read “The Worst Hard Times” by Tim Egan. Sadly, I cannot share what I learned with my dad, but I know he’d appreciate it.

Great writing is everywhere; you just have to be open to it. Once, I plucked an intriguing book from the new fiction shelf at Koelbel Library. It turned out to be ultra-violent gay erotica. I know because I read every single word! Want to understand voice in fiction? Pick up “The Smoke” by Tony Broadbent. I guarantee you’ll be reading with a Cockney accent as you follow this charming cat burglar across the rooftops of post-war London. For unrelenting tension, I dare you to follow Nancy Drew into the dank blackness of the hidden staircase. (Hip Tip: The original 1930s volume is completely different and better than later revisions of “The Hidden Staircase.”)

I used to feel a weird compulsion to finish every book I started. Then, as I slogged through an unspeakably boring tome, I came upon this pearl of wisdom:  There is no thief like a bad book. Those words set me free. I don’t know What Came Before He Shot Her because I didn’t bother to finish it. I luxuriated in Anna and Count Vronsky’s romance and guiltlessly skipped all the bearded Russian angst in “Anna Karenina.” I grew bored with “The Milagro Beanfield War” and happily watched the DVD instead. My bookmark remains in place though. I figure if I’m ever under house arrest and have read every other book and magazine piled up around here, I’ll finish it.

My hypercritical friend needs to step away from the keyboard, put down his red pen and lose himself in a good book. Perhaps I should point him to the new fiction shelf at Koelbel Library. No telling what he’ll find there.
_____________________

Kimberly Field is the co-author of “The Denver Mint: 100 Years of Gangsters, Gold and Ghosts,” a finalist for the Colorado Book Award. She is working on her third book, due out in 2011. Kim writes for national print and online publications and documentary film on subjects ranging from politics to Western lifestyle to climatology. Like most writers, she has an unfinished novel in her drawer.

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