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How Do You Read?

How do you read?

I get frequent questions—from readers and interviewers—asking me whether I read. My initial response is always, “What, are you crazy?”, but I usually suppress this in favor of something more politic, like, “How can anybody not read?”

People do (not read, I mean), of course, horrifying as this concept is (my husband once had an employee who told him that her daughter had to read a book for school and so she had rented a copy for the child. Having been in her house, I’d noticed that she owned no books (totally creepy), but to have no idea of what or where the public library is?). But come on—to ask a professional novelist whether he or she reads?

Now, I do hear from other novelists who say that they can’t read books in their own genre, or can’t read while actively writing, and that makes some sense (I don’t read time-travel books, myself). But if you don’t read something, how do you refine your sensibilities, improve your craft, or merely fill up your creative well by listening to the lyrical song of someone else’s words?

Let’s put it this way: If there are any novelists who just don’t read, I probably don’t want to read what they write.

A refinement of the “Do you read?” question comes along every now and then, and this one is kind of interesting: “HOW do you read? I used to love reading, but now I have a job, kids, a house, etc., and I just seem to have no time to read anymore. I know you have a busy life, too, so I just wanted to ask, how do you manage to read?”

Now, that’s a question of logistics, isn’t it? So I took a look at “how” I read, physically. Because I do read pretty much all the time, and normally consume 3-4 books a week (lots more, when traveling), not counting whatever I’m reading for research. So how does it work?

Well, for starters, I always have at least one book within reach. If you’re accustomed to only reading in your favorite chair, when you have two or three hours of leisure, with a good light on and a glass of sweet tea beside you, then yeah, having a family is going to inhibit you some. I read everywhere. All the time.

I have a book on the counter while I’m cooking; I can’t (or shouldn’t {cough}) read while chopping vegetables, but I can certainly read while tearing up lettuce, sautéing garlic, or browning meat—and once something’s on the stove or in the oven, I just need to be there. No problem in reading while waiting for things to brown, cook, simmer, etc. (actually, I do pushups on my kitchen counter while reading during kitchen lag-time—I can read the back Op-Ed page of the Wall Street Journal and do 75 pushups (the sissy kind; I have weak wrists) while waiting for the dogs to eat their breakfast. (Why am I waiting for dogs to eat? Because the fat one eats faster and will muscle his brother out of the last quarter of his meal if I’m not watching)).

I have dogs; my son has dogs, and brings them down with him when he comes to visit. I take the rest of the Wall Street Journal to my office with me and whenever the dogs need to go out, I bring a chunk of it along—or if I’ve finished the paper, I grab my Kindle and read whatever’s up on that while the hounds burrow for gophers or play Questing Beast in the long grass and tumbleweeds.

I have a book on the bathroom counter and read while brushing teeth, applying sunscreen, and performing ablutions. I take the book into my closet and read while I’m getting dressed.

I try to walk five miles a day (and manage it about four days a week; get 2-3 miles on other days), with and without dogs. I have audiobooks on my iPod, and listen to these while walking (on my second re-listen of the entire Aubrey/Maturin series, by Patrick O’Brian—great books, one of my all-time favorite series).

If I have books for review (I do occasional reviews for a newspaper) or waiting for possible blurbs (there’s a small stack of ARCs from publishers), I pick one up whenever I go downstairs and take it along on errands (always take a book to a doctor’s appointment or the post office, is my advice).

Poetry books, and nonfiction books that aren’t for research, but just interesting—I’m reading Simon Winchester’s KRAKATOA at the moment—I leave in the bathroom, and read in small, digestible chunks. That enables me to comprehend everything easily, as I’m seldom dealing with more than a page at a time. {g} Have had KRAKATOA in there for two weeks; about halfway through the book, and now know all kinds of fascinating stuff about plate tectonics, with THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS and John Mark Eberhart’s poetry collection, NIGHT WATCH, waiting for their turn.

The only time (other than traveling) I really read without doing something else is for a brief period after dinner, while my husband watches TV, and for a still briefer period after I’ve tucked him in bed, when the dogs and I lie down on the Taos bed, and I read for 10-30 minutes before falling asleep.

It’s sort of like the way I write. Not in concentrated stretches of 4-5 hours (I do know some writers who claim that’s the only way they can write, and more power to them), but in stretches of an hour at a time, two or three or four times a day (depending where I am in the course of a book; toward the end, I really do write nonstop for ten or twelve hours—bar bathroom breaks (during which I read) and meals (ditto)—but that phase luckily doesn’t last long).

For today: Just finished Charlaine Harris’s new Sookie Stackhouse novel, DEAD RECKONING (good as always) this morning, 35% of the way through Anne Perry’s TREASON AT LISSON GROVE, which I picked up right afterward, four more pages about subduction zones in KRAKATOA, and about 25 pages into the ARC of a thriller off the blurb pile. Plus entertaining stuff from WSJ about the medical maladies of historical characters and why birth-control pills make women marry less-masculine men (also good op-ed piece by a British writer on pusillanimous response of Brits to killing of bin Laden).

Now mind, I don’t watch television. That helps.

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167 Responses »

  1. Adding to strange places to read, My parents had a roller skating rink area in the back room of their business ( a converted barn). As a young girl, I loved to roller skate and read. It is best done with an empty rink but it can be done with others as long as it isn’t too busy. I also skated backwards reading but for that you definitely want the rink to yourself. So yes I do read virtually all the time, except driving as I rarely have the road to myself.
    Thank you for writing, Diana, you are very much appreciated.

  2. I am late to the discussion but have enjoyed reading the comments and I am happy to learn there are many avid readers! I am usually reading at least 1 fiction book for fun, 1 book related to my profession(acupressure/massage) and 1 non-fiction book for fun or learning something new. I often joke that I am an armchair adventurer-I love to read about people like Dian Fossey, Jane Goodall or Sy Montgomery. I am currently reading Wildflower: An Extraordinary Life and Untimely Death in Africa by Mark Seal (about Joan Root), just finished Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver and just started Five Quarters of Orange by Joanne Harris(author of Chocolat) but am not really enjoying it. I also recently read 3 books by Sena Jeter Naslund–Four Spirits, Ahab’s Wife, and Adam and Eve. If you have not read her books I highly recomend the first two (Adam and Eve was ok but not anywhere close to the quality of the others) I could not put down Ahab’s Wife!
    For those of you concerned about a child not reading–sometimes it is finding the right book and sometimes it takes bribery! My 3 daughters are all avid readers like me(though youngest was a bit slow to get started) and my oldest daughter has 3 kids–oldest girl is an avid reader, youngest is a boy and though he likes to read he prefers active outdoor play right now, daughter number 2 was not a reader. My daughter bribed her–said she would give her $10.00 if she would read all the Harry Potter books and she did! Then she started picking up other books that her sister or Mom were reading. TV is just not an option–if they don’t want to read they need to be outside playing or doing arts/crafts.
    My husband likes to read too–we share books on Daoism, herbs, natural healing and sometimes fiction but he likes science fiction more than I do. He has read the first 4 of the Outlander–drives me crazy that he doesn’t seem interested in finishing the series! And, Diana I think you will get a kick out of this: daughter #2 started getting serious about a guy and decided it was time to introduce him to us. We were asking about him while she and her best friend were visiting –friend said that she would describe new BF as very “Jamiesque”! Saw him in a rugby match and said she could imagine him out on a battlefield in a kilt (they were wearing shorts and showing off strong legs!). He is a tall redhead with blue eyes. It was funny that all of us knew exactly what she was talking about–sisters, step-dad, me! DD won’t let us say anything to him yet about being like Jamie! I also have always imagined Claire as looking a lot like my daughter–though she is a Princess and the Pea–would not last long in rough conditions! I am so looking forward to the next book on Jamie and Claire!

  3. Diana…just wondering…was there ever a time in your life when you were NOT reading (for leisure) much? I just went back to graduate school and my leisure reading has plummeted! After a day’s lab work and incessant paper-reading leisure reading seems to slip through the cracks. I have to say though, your post on reading really made me feel like there is always time for a quick read. Thanks for that.

  4. Dear Diana,

    Having enjoyed your exchange with Rach Daven, I thought I’d add my own perspective. I, too, read almost everything and have walls of books all over the house, ranging from how- to’s on handcrafting and sewing, genealogy, astrology, writing, various forms of art, cooking, ecology/conservation, the Foxfire books (Appalachia) and gardening. I also have a large collection of geographical “place” books, historical works from medieval times through WWII, RR commemoratives, local area histories, and a scattering of geological and vaguely scientific books that can be understood by “dummies”. In addition. there’s a set of Encyclopedia Britannica (circa 1967) plus the yearly books issued by them thereafter up to the present day plus impossible-to-count numbers of volumes with fictional content.

    I’ve devoured books since I was very young, graduating from children’s books at the age of 10, moving into westerns and detective stories that my father chose for me. Genetically, I come from a long line of readers; my immigrant great-great grandmother came from Ireland in 1848 (with a dozen books in her trunk) and there’s been a “reader” in each generation that followed her. My son is the next one; his sister will read but it’s more of an effort for her. However, once I introduced her to the Outlander books, she has impatiently nagged me for “the next one”.

    Living much of my life out in the country, books have been both entertainment and the means of expanding my mind ever since. And despite my other interests in life, my love of reading probably
    exceeds any other except my family. When I read, I’m absorbed in the world on the pages in front of me. So, in 1987, when they needed a library trustee on the local board, I got elected and now, after 24 years, have finally resigned. Time for some younger blood, I think.

    That said, I admit I’m not as coordinated about my reading as you are, but I do read while eating or whenever I have to sit and wait somewhere (although sometimes I also keep a sketchbook handy). Most of the time, I’m inclined to pick a favorite spot (in the house or outin the yard) and spend a few hours absorbed in a book. The way I read is impatiently. I want to know the story more than the intimate details. I can go through a normal book in 3 to 4 hours and the reason is because I need to reach the conclusion as fast as I can so I’m not tempted to peek ahead. Once I have the plot firmly in mind, IF the writing is good and the VOICE of the author’s clear, I’ll go back and read it again; this time more slowly with greater attention paid to the prose and continuity, searching for the nuances I may have overlooked in the first reading. I don’t think everyone should read this way; each reader
    should do whatever works best for their enjoyment. This just happens to be my method.

    Needless to say, the Outlander series has continually inpressed me. Not only with your ability to plot believably, but also with the way you work in area history, well-known characters, human vulnerability and those thoroughly enjoyable bits of family life, tenderness and humor. In my second and subsequent readings of your books (I have all twelve, now) I’ve discovered a richness of resonance that stays with me long after I have closed the book.

    I’m also amazed at the way you described scheduling your days; I have never been–and never will be–as energetic and efficient as you seem to be. While I do have a lot of interests in various aspects of life, at my age (80) I don’t feel a need to be that productive. I don’t have to fill every minute of every day. . . come to think of it, I never really have. If that’s marching to a different drummer, then I guess I do for I don’t read when I have the time for it. I read because I TAKE the time for it. An afternoon spent in pursuit of a pleasured mind is much more importnt to me than doing my housework.

  5. Having 3 children, ages 3 and under, makes finding time to read a little difficult. Other than children’s books, that is. Most of the children’s books that I enjoy they really aren’t ready to comprehend. I want to hold my baby girls close to me and have them be my babies for always BUT I am looking forward to the time in their lives when we can have reading nights. My mother did that with me and my brother when we were young. We would, all of us, lay in the bed together every night and my mom would read a chapter out of Madeleine L’engle’s A Wrinkle In Time series. And I am so looking forward to sharing that with my three (or more(maybe?)) daughters. And Harry Potter and whatever else I can read to them that will incite a love for reading such as my mother did for me.
    Growing up, I always had my nose in a book, as did my brother. Thankfully, my mother, bless her heart, bought me a Kindle this past Christmas!!! so now, I can read almost anywhere. The playground, on my lunch break, the park, on the exercise bike, while nursing my 9 month old, while pumping (milk, that is)… I haven’t quite mastered the art of laundry and reading, but give me time…I’ll rig up something, eventually;) I’m really enjoying reading the Native American historical fictions by James Alexander Thom.
    Happy Reading!

  6. Diana,

    I’ve always loved the way a book feels and smells (positively refreshing), but after reading this blog post I feel like I should invest in an e-reader of some sort! All the wasted time not multitasking with reading because I needed 2 hands to read borders on tragic! So, now which to invest in. Suggestions? I see the big competitors are Nook and Kindle.

    PS I meant to tell you that I won the 10 free copies of Outlander to give away, and I am pleased to report they are gone and you have 10 new fans…including my husband.

    PPS Completely unrelated, what is Claire’s favorite tea? Curiosity overcame me as I was having a cup myself while reading Outlander…again.

    • Dear Julie–

      Many thanks for distributing the books–and my regards to your husband. {g}

      Claire likes Oolong, when she can get it.

      –Diana

  7. Cooking while reading or reading while cooking is not a smart move for me.
    The results are rather unfavorable.
    An iPod with a book on it to listen to, might try that one day. I am more the paper person and need to have it in my hands, instead of a voice in my head (I usually don’t even listen to music on walks). But who knows, I might like it.
    But overall I usually read at least one book a week. They are harder to come by here in Kuwait though without an APO address *big sigh* ;)
    Looking forward to be back in civilization one day (pst, don’t tell anyone I said that) and stock up on the Lord John series :)
    People that don’t read usually turn out to be a very strange species. *shudder*

  8. Dear Diana,

    I love your novels, and perhaps most of all your characters. To my mind, it is like they are real people – they just live very far away so I never get the opportunity to see them!

    Regarding this post, though. I now find myself slightly infatuated with you – you are the only person I know who reads like I do! And obviously how people read is a serious requirement for infatuation! I too read constantly, and have done since I was very very young (I am now 22 years old). Do you also have to look in strange places when you have lost a book you are reading at the moment? I always have a look in the wardrobe (yes, obviously reading whilst getting dressed is a fabulous idea!), the fridge, bathroom shelves…

    I haven’t visited this site before, but noticed that you are doing a book signing in Scotland later on this summer. Would love to travel there – will see if I can procure the funding…

    With many thanks for the countless days of entertainment your books have given me,
    Alexandra

  9. whoah this blog is fantastic i love reading your posts. Keep up the good work! You know, a lot of people are hunting around for this information, you can help them greatly.

  10. Diana, Me Mum passed your Outlander series on to me sans Voyager. I have read Outlander and Dragon Fly in Amber in less than a week. I literally could not put the books down and purposely did not order Voyager from the local library because my house is in bad need of cleaning! Me Mum’s da was Scotch, from Nova Scotia, Thompson’s the name. The first book sent me to the internet looking up the clan history and the tartan, then I got engrossed in looking at the Google Map of Scotland, going on the ground and trying to figure out just where Lallybrock is. Oh, right, fictional. Ha! One of the reviews in one of the books says, “The pages turn themselves.” They sure do. I could not put them down, and now I’ve just finished Dragon Fly…and I am sorely angry with myself for not having Voyager ready to delve into, housework be damned. Rest assured I will be on the phone to my library tomorrow to have their copy held for my pick-up ASAP! I have every other one but that one and cannot bring myself to just skip Voyager and go on with Clair watching a execution parade in Charleston NC, without knowing how she got there, and her looking for Jamie in the crowd. I have to know how she got back to him, how it is that Bree and Roger are there with her. OMG…I can’t wait. I’m pouring over trips to Scotland on Cheaptickets.com so I can find that mini-Henge and go back in time and find my own Jamie Fraser. You’re one great writer, Diana. Your books have sparked an interest in my Scotch heritage that heretofore I have not had. I’m wondering now if my Grampa’s ancestors came here in the aftermath of the Cullendormuir battle. Also intriguing to me is the fact that my father’s family is basically English and traces its roots to Yorkshire. Both grandmothers are at least half Native American, one Micmac, the other Malacite. I have quite a bit of information from that end of my ancestry. The Scotch bit kind of got left out as being not that interesting. NOT INTERESTING?!! I had no idea until I got engrossed in your wonderful series. Thank you for that.
    Bonnie (yes, my real name)

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