Casting a Wide Net

Anonymous 17th-century watercolor of the Sempe...
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A friend lent me the book A Cat is Watching by Roger Caras. It’s only about cats, but in it was a surprisingly simple supposition to explain the invention of poetry – to bridge the vast gap between my interior reality and yours.  Seeing it out of context, like a sort of sideways glance in a one-liner, had more meaning than any of those intellectual essays on poetry in literary magazines.  It felt like an impromptu gift from random reading.

Reading at random, outside your preferences and genres, is good for the would-be writer or for that matter, most everybody.  A certain amount of promiscuity in reading tastes can be a source of new ideas, rejuvenation and salvation. Say you’re submerged in writing a novel; it’s safer to cross the boundary into reading non-fiction while you’re writing.  It saves you from the problem of comparing your style with another author, it removes a possible source of envy, and it gives your brain a break.

How to Welcome Randomness in Reading

A while back when an old friend of the family died, none of his heirs wanted his collection of books.  He was a right-wing, gold-bug, arch conservative small town doctor.  By happenstance his library ended up with me.  Many of the books were those heavy bound medical reference books with the kind of pictures that bring on the gag reflex. But when I saw his 1852 edition of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and Other Phenomenon of Crowds I knew I’d stumbled into a real treasure trove.  It’s the all time classic tome about the psychology of feeding frenzies, asset bubbles and market manipulation, the best known being the Tulip Mania. It was out of print and had been impossible to find.  The collection included dozens of gems I never would have known about or run across.   

Not everybody can rely on a source of random must-reads falling into their lap like my legacy library.  But the next best thing might be the discount table at the book store.  I’ve had more luck finding a satisfying new book amongst the castoffs of the publishing money machine than on the Best Seller’s display.  Caesar’s Woman opened up the world of Rome in the series by Colleen McCulloughMy Antonia by Willa Cather was mesmerizing and led me on a year long quest to read most everything she wrote.  Patenting the Sun was a two-dollar non-fiction book about the polio vaccine that induced a sensation of pulling back the curtain and seeing the obvious hidden by everyday life.

Boredom is another useful motivator to push your reading limits.  It’s the only reason I read Death of Salesman. Rainy day ennui got me to pull it off the bookshelf in the family TV room because there was literally nothing else to do.  Those pitiful images of disappointment and the tragic lesson about how life can get derailed so easily was powerful stuff to a bored teenager.

Invite a little chaos into your reading habits, you might find some amazing ideas in the least expected places.

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