Something I read just recently about Hemingway grabbed my attention: one of the techniques he used to hone his craft was to constantly read and study the masters of literature. Over the years, he devoted countless hours to analyzing the writing of the giants like Homer, Dante, Flaubert, and Turgenev. He was also incredibly well versed in the Bible and could quote long passages by heart.
While I’m an eclectic reader who loves to dip into O Magazine and Nora Roberts, from time to time, I’ll also revisit a beloved classic or tackle something new that’s been on my must-read list for years. Last summer, I reread the fabulous Madame Bovary and was struck by the suppleness of Flaubert’s descriptions. I also gave myself the pleasure of rereading Jane Eyre: it was fantastic, as fresh and appealing as ever.
While most of the time I read as a reader — for the sheer pleasure of the story — I’ve increasingly come to realize the importance of reading the classics more analytically — and looking at how masterful writers I admire create the effects that they do.
My sister Steph is a wonderful editor and she often talks about how she just automatically deconstructs anything she reads, with the goal of figuring out precisely how an author “hooks” her as a reader and how momentum is maintained during the first pages of a story. In short, she’s always trying to “crack the code” and understand how writers she likes compel her to keep reading.
For me, it’s not always easy to strike a balance between savoring the emotional satisfaction I get from a wonderful piece of writing and applying a more analytical approach in order to determine precisely how a writer elicited that response from me. And yet, I think I have to side with Hemingway: to get to the next level, I’m going to need to become a more objective and clinical reader. How about you? Have you figured out how to balance reading for pleasure with reading for technique?