While I usually use this space to talk about writing, reading is nearly as important to my identity as a writer. Many writers I admire claim the same, and I think it is something, as readers and writers alike, that we should think about more often.
I am a voracious reader. I can't tell you how many nights I've chosen a book over sleep, and that started before I turned ten years old. I blame - or, rather, credit - my mother, who always loved books and their inner-worlds, and taught me a love for them early. For me, writing and reading are inextricably linked. As I read, I often jot down notes, and as I write, if I find myself blocked, I'll take a break and read a bit.
In an attempt to keep track of my reading habits (and, selfishly, to see how much I was really reading per year), at the beginning of 2010 I started a reading diary on Tumblr. It's essentially a quickie log of all the books I've read for the year, and a brief thumbs up or down. If you take the time to scan through, you'll find my reading tastes are all over the map - lots of paranormal romance, psychological thrillers, murder mysteries, horror, poetry. Books on librarianship, education, and the craft of writing. The list is as scattered as my interests, and I often forget to list one here and there. I like to think of it as a sort of "grade deflation," if you will. In any case, it's a very interesting exercise, and I recommend it. Without keeping such a log, I wouldn't be able to tell you that I'm up to more than 111 books read in 2010. The holidays hold a bit of travel for me, so I imagine I'll make it closer to 120 before 2010 is officially nailed into its coffin. While I tend to read in clumps, particularly holidays and weekends, it averages to about one book every 3 days.
Am I afraid what I read affects my writing? Yes and no. "Afraid" isn't really the right word - I think we are influenced by everything we read, see, hear and do. I think some things - and some writers - will affect us more than others depending on our tastes and histories. I know I am influenced by my reading in terms of how I write, what I write about, and how I think about writing, sound, line breaks, and more. My forthcoming collection, The Kentucky Vein, was inspired by my reading Ray Gonzalez, Maurice Manning, and a handful of others. There's much less of an obvious influence in my previous collections, but if I look closely at those, I can see Louise Gluck, Janice Harrington, Kim Addonizio, Lucille Clifton, Richard Hugo and others peeking through at me. If you read them, you may see others.
I've heard that many writing students balk at reading because they want to be original, they don't want some echo of a former writer to show up in their work. I believe that choosing to be poorly read is the same thing as choosing ignorance; being willfully un-knowledged. I would recommend instead that writers read as broadly as possible, and be influenced by as many as possible. As a writer, become aware of which writers you like, and try to articulate why it is you prefer them. After much reading and some studying with great writers, I can tell you that while I don;t prefer his storytelling overmuch, I like the mouthfeel of Richard Hugo and the way he plays with syllables, sounds and wordshapes in his poems. I get caught easily by good wavelike rhythms, like those used by T. S. Eliot and Lucille Clifton. I like the strong female protagonists and the harsher staccato rhythms in Kim Addonizio's work, I like much of the persona work done by Ai, and I prefer the storytelling of Louise Gluck and Natasha Trethewey. I love Kipling for his wit and humor, and Whitman for his exuberance and lack of restraint. I admire the gemlike precision and clarity of Czeslaw Milosz. I could go on forever, but the point is that I don't fear the influence of these writers...I pray for it. I hope that delving into the qualities of their work that attract me so much will help me hone those qualities in my own writing. Being able to recognize excellence is a precursor to training yourself to create it yourself, or to at least recognize when you are hitting the sweet spot with your pen!
How can you decide what you like in literature and writing, or more importantly, why you like it, unless you've exposed yourself to different flavors? The lovely poet and non-fiction writer Molly Peacock gave a lecture on "Literary Aunts & Uncles" when I attended Spalding University for my MFA. Essentially, she noted that reading other writers allows us to place ourselves in a particular tradition. If you are a writer, read widely and joyfully. Discover who your literary ancestors are. Read in your genre so you can place yourself (and also appear to be not a complete self-absorbed ass if someone asks you about your craft, heh heh). Read outside your genre for fun, for the brain-break it creates,and to connect with other writers and to identify the difficulties of their craft. (For instance, I am always amazed and impressed at the stamina of writers who work in long-forms, such as fiction novels and biographies. As a poet, I can make a transition by putting a new poem on the next page, whereas they have much more work to make leaps between subjects, areas, and characters happen.)
And if you are already a reader: as a writer, I say thank you. Your willingness to explore other worlds and give my words a chance keeps me going. Keep turning those pages!