Sunday’s Guardian UK article quotes Umberto Eco saying “I don’t read, I write.” This is not an unfamiliar phrase to me. Many years back, I heard my countryman, V.S. Naipaul say the same thing. But if we’re all writing and nobody is reading, what’s the point of writing in the first place? Don’t writers have a duty, if even by way of keeping themselves in business, to read books?
Maybe Eco and Naipaul don’t have to read. They have long paid their dues in the publishing world, and they know that their prose will be read by their well-established fan base. So maybe it’s OK if they only know books “socially,” hearing enough about them in conversation, or maybe flipping through the pages, to feel like they’ve gotten the gist. But you and I are not Umberto Eco and V.S. Naipaul. We have to read books. We haven’t paid our dues. We don’t have throngs of fans, or the deep respect of a literary community. And there’s also the fact that we just love to read books. We love the experience of living within the pages. And as writers, the added experience of reading something that we wished we’d written, or that we know we couldn’t measure up to, or that we’re sure is trash compared to our own work.
There is so much experience to be had within two covers that it’s almost irresponsible to suggest that it’s OK for a writer not to read. Although I must admit that I was greatly gratified on hearing that Eco hadn’t actually read THE GREAT GATSBY. Because I haven’t either. At least, not yet.