I thought to myself, lying in bed one night, in an uncharacteristic moment of modesty, "How much do I have to say that anyone cares about reading?"
If you write for a living, you have to put modesty out of your mind. It is a great privilege to have something you have written preserved in type and printed as a book.
One thing I know is, you can make an essay out of anything. There are times when I've written on subjects about which I know very little. A writer can do that. He has the advantage of being able to look things up, to ask questions of other people more knowledgeable than he. He can sit back and think before putting anything down on paper. This puts the writer one up on readers and often makes him sound smarter than he is. I try to do that. It doesn't seem dishonest. I comb my hair and try to wear decent clothes so I'll look better than I would naked, so why shouldn't I try to write in a style that makes me sound smarter and more interesting than I am?
This book is made up of all essays. The essay is a grand and classic writing format. Igor Stravinsky, the musician, tried to write at one point in his career. He said, "I experience a sort of terror if I sit down to work and find an infinity of possibilities open to me. No effort is conceivable."
Stravinsky said he conquered that terror by turning his creative urge to the seven notes of the scale and writing music. "For then I have something solid and concrete," he said. "I am saved from the anguish of unconditional liberty."
I turn not to the piano, but to the essay form. The essay offers a writer a great deal of freedom but falls short of offering the "unconditional liberty" that stopped Stravinsky. The essay provides a writer boundaries within which he can go to work. Confinement is conducive to creativity.
I am not a great writer, but I don't write badly very often. This passes for good writing. As a matter of fact, there's just so much good writing anyone can take. To some extent, it's like acting. If you notice the acting, it probably isn't good. Good writing shouldn't call a lot of attention to itself, either.
Something happens to a lot of people when they write. Their voice changes—even on paper. They tighten up and are not themselves. One thing of which I am certain is that no one writes as he speaks and no one speaks as he writes. When a writer is faced with the choice of styles, it is always better if he writes more like he speaks. If you know the writer, you should be able to hear his voice as you read the words.
You can't take the idea too far because when we talk we are hesitant, discursive and repetitive. If you make a verbatim transcript of a conversation, it invariably needs to be heavily edited before being printed.
The writer gets a good break in newspapers. His or her name is right there up front, available for credit or blame on whatever has been written. In the arts, it has always bothered me that the writer takes last place. The credits on a movie or a play almost always list the writer in small type where it's hard to find. I never knew why this was because actors are a dime a dozen and good writers are hard to find. The production of a play or a movie or the publication of a book stands still until the writer gets the words down on paper. No one can do anything until the manuscript appears. There are a dozen editors, publishers, directors, producers and investors waiting for one writer to get something down on paper. Then they change it.
Writing an essay is, for me, always a pleasure because people tend to leave it alone. An essay isn't important enough to change.
Pursuit of Truth, not Fiction
My life is one of unread books. I don't have the time or space to name all the books I have not read. In recent years, I have overcome the shame I once felt when asked if I'd read something and had to answer "No," by converting my shame into pride. When asked now if I've read The Da Vinci Code for example, I say, "No, I never read novels. I like my own real life too much to want to be transported into someone else's fictitious world."
This is not really an intellectual answer to the question but it sounds thoughtful if you don't think about it and people nod. It is true, too, that I never read fiction. I started not reading fiction in about the ninth grade when an English teacher assigned our class the novel Lorna Doone I got away with not reading "Lorna Doone" by reading a brief resume of it and have never felt uneducated for having skipped it. I have plans to read Silas Marner when I get on in years.
Over the years, I have broken my rule about fiction ten times. I read Slaughterhouse Five because Kurt Vonnegut, who wrote it, is a friend of mine and I didn't want to have it come out inadvertently, when we were talking, that I was ignorant of his masterpiece. I have not read A Farewell to Arms or The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway, because I knew Hemingway, too, and thought he was a boob.
Putting my mind to fiction I have read, I come up with ten great books: Lord of the Flies, Heart of Darkness, Death Comes for the Archbishop, The Bridge of San Luis Rey. Winesburg, Ohio, Darkness at Noon, Brave New World, The Catcher in the Rye, From Here to Eternity and Lolita. I should really leave out Lolita because I read that years ago as a dirty book, not as literature, although it's both. Half of those titles were assigned by a teacher when I was in high school or college.
Reading fiction is a form of entertainment. You read nonfiction for information. Someone famous said that those who read nonfiction read to remember, and those who read novels, read to forget. I read the newspaper or a magazine for about an hour a day. That seems like as much
time as I should spend on someone else's words.
Not reading novels doesn't make me special. There are something like 290 million Americans, and a popular book like Tom Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmons may sell 400,000 copies. That means about one of every 725 Americans bought a copy. I'm one of the ones who don't read bestselling novels, so I'm not alone. I'm being generous, too, suggesting that everyone who buys a book reads the book. I suspect that a lot more books are bought than read.
The most omnivorous reader I ever knew was Harry Reasoner. When he anchored the CBS Evening News, substituting for Walter Cronkite, he would sit in the chair before the broadcast, and while everyone else around him was frantically tending to last-minute details, Harry would sit quietly reading a novel. When the producer yelled, "Thirty seconds!", Harry would finish the paragraph, put down the book and look into the camera ready to read the news from the TelePrompTer in front of him.
I don't mean to sound proud of not reading novels, nor do I advocate not reading them. I have respect and admiration for people who read fiction. I think of them as culturally and intellectually superior to myself.