Writing advice

Schopenhauer’s Rules for Readers (Revised for Writers)

Last weekend I did not post to the blog because I was neck-deep in the South Coast Writers Conference. As always, it was great experience, meeting all sorts of new people and learning new skills and new ways of looking at old ones. The one drawback to an experience like this is that you are flooded with so much information you have no time to internalize what you’ve learned.

It took me three days to establish enough equilibrium again to write anything.

So I will not be sharing what I learned just yet. I need a little more time to make it my own.

So I’m going to write about something I stumbled upon on the web the other day. It was an article (more of a list than a real article) about the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s seven rules for reader’s. I was intrigued and decided to reinterpret them for writers.

So I present Schopenhauer’s Rules For Reading Writers:

Don’t read without reflection.

It is only by reflection that one can assimilate what one has read. If one reads straight ahead without pondering over it later, what one has read does not take root, but is for the most part lost.”

I agree, for the most part. If you read nothing but Hemingway for a couple of months, you will begin to assimilate his style unconsciously, whether you want to or not. Pausing to reflect on what you’ve read will speed this process up because you will be engaging both your conscious and unconscious mind.

Don’t waste time with bad books.

The art of not reading is highly important. This consists in not taking a book into one’s hand merely because it is interesting the great public at the time… In order to read what is good one must make it a condition never to read what is bad; for life is short, and both time and strength limited.”

On this point I have to disagree somewhat with the great philosopher, but only because we are reading to different ends. He is advising students whose goal is to enrich their minds. As aspiring authors, we can learn a great deal from works that aren’t written well, provided we accept that they are not done well. We have to read these with the mindset of asking why they aren’t done well and how we might do it differently to fix the problems.

Don’t read only new books.

What can be more miserable than the fate of a reading public of this kind, that feels always impelled to read the latest writings of extremely commonplace authors who write for money only, and therefore exist in numbers?… It is because people will only read what is the newest instead of what is the best of all ages, that writers remain in the narrow circle of prevailing ideas, and the age sinks deeper and deeper in its own mire.”

Yes. Sometimes the cultural ideas will be dated, as will the mechanics (fiction from the Dickens-Hardy era was allowed to move at a much slower pace than modern fiction) but the rules of drama, characterization, and storytelling remain much the same.

Don’t just buy books; read them!

It would be a good thing to buy books if one could also buy the time to read them; but one usually confuses the purchase of books with the acquisition of their contents.”

I will be the first to confess that I am guilty of this. I buy three times more books than I can ever read, which does me no good. If you can’t or don’t ever read them, owning them doesn’t help.

Reread important books.

Any kind of important book should immediately be read twice, partly because one grasps the matter in its entirety the second time, and only really understands the beginning when the end is known; and partly because in reading it the second time one’s temper and mood are different, so that one gets another impression; it may be that one sees the matter in another light.”

I cannot agree with this strongly enough. One can only truly understand how an author structured her work when you know the entire work as a whole. It is only when we reread that we learn how the author constructed the beginning, it’s relationship with the middle and end, and how the author ties everything together. In the first reading, we are caught up in the story (or should be if it’s done well); it is in the second reading that we notice the mechanics that so captured us the first time.

Read the classics.

There is nothing that so greatly recreates the mind as the works of the old classic writers…Is this due to the…greatness of the minds whose works have remained unharmed and untouched for centuries?…This I know, directly we stop (reading classic literature)…a new class of literature will spring up, consisting of writing that is more barbaric, stupid, and worthless than has ever yet existed.”

I don’t know that there’s anything terribly wrong with what Schopenhauer would call “barbaric” literature—or popular fiction as we would call it—but I can see what he is trying to say. As writers, if we no longer familiar ourselves with the great works that have come before us, we will be constantly be reinventing the wheel and therefore make no progress in the art form. Literature becomes static, going over the same ground, generation after generation. The best art builds upon the art that has preceded it. To do that, we need to read it.


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