You are what you read

Old booksLast night I started reading Ulysses, by James Joyce. It’s been staring at me from my bookshelf for several years now, ever since I came across Modern Library’s list of the 100 best novels and decided to read my way down the list. (I think I got through about a book and a half before giving up. Fortunately I didn’t buy all 100 books in advance.)

I’ve been warned about Ulysses. It’s fat and white, which makes it good at staring accusingly at me from the bookshelf, being judgmental about the fact the spine is still uncreased.

I’ve been warned that it’s full of clever literary tricks and allusions I won’t understand, that nothing happens in it, that it’s a book people admire rather than love. Some people call it the greatest novel ever written.

I call it a broccoli book.

Some people love broccoli and eat it for the joy of it. I’m not one of them.

I get enough of people wandering around and talking to each other in real life. Although the plot of real life doesn’t entirely make sense and the ending is way too depressing, the characters tend to be well-rounded, with their own strengths and foibles, inconsistencies and blind spots. The sensory experience is incredible and you even get to pick your own path.

Why read to get more of what I get anyway? I read to go somewhere bigger, brighter, more meaningful, and more magical. I primarily read fantasy.

The problem is, I don’t think fantasy alone is a balanced book diet.

Fantasy novels (and I generalise here, so don’t be offended because I’m sure your book is a special case) are often good on the big flashy concepts and weaker in terms of character and the quality of the prose.

I think my current strengths as a writer, unsurprisingly, align pretty well with the strengths of the books I habitually read. To improve my skills in the areas where I’m weaker, I need to branch out in terms of reading.

I believe the writing that comes out of you is strongly influenced by the writing that goes into you, and I don’t think a little bit of James Joyce’s brilliance would hurt anyone. Writers should eat their broccoli as well as their cake.

So last night I read the first two pages of Ulysses before giving in to sleep. I understood them and they didn’t bore me to death. It was a promising start.

Have you read Ulysses? Am I going to regret this? Do you ever read books because you think you should eat your broccoli? Do any turn out to be more enjoyable than you expected? Are there any broccoli books currently on your to read list?

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Author: A.S. Akkalon

By day, A.S. Akkalon works in an office where the computers outnumber the suits of armour more than two-to-one. By night, she puts dreams of medieval castles, swords, and dragons onto paper.

10 thoughts on “You are what you read”

  1. So true. I try to read as widely as I can, for the exact reasons you mention – limiting yourself to just one genre, it seems to me, is a sure way to limit your ability to write as well. But I’m also not a big fan of of a lot of ‘literary’books – I’m perfectly happy not reading about the gritty details of relationships, divorce, life and death. But some writers manage it in a way that keeps things interesting and engaging, and offer new ways of looking at things, so I still dip in here and there.

    Now, Ulysses – I loved Dubliners, and I still have phrases from those stories stuck in my head because they were so beautiful. I tried Ulysses twice, and the writing’s still just as incredible, but I need a story for a book that length, and maybe I wasn’t bright enough to find it, but I just lost interest both times. The second time I made it about 2/3 through before I gave up. I’ve not ruled out a third attempt, but it’s low down on the TBR now. I might re-read Dubliners instead.

    Be interested to know how you go!

    1. Dubliners, hmm. That’s not on the Modern Library list. But if I crash and burn on Ulysses I might pick it up instead and give it a go. 🙂 I do enjoy beautiful phrases.

      I’m impressed you made it 2/3 of the way through Ulysses. That’s about three books in if the books were of normal size.

  2. A broccoli book! Now there’s the cool new term. I haven’t read Ulysses and I’m scared to try. Sounds a bit too hard to digest, but indeed, let us know what you think if you manage to read it. I agree that variety is good in reading. I mainly read scifi, action and smut, but occasionally I get burned out on these and pick up fantasy, memoirs and other things instead. My personal broccoli books are Moby Dick and Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo. They’re not even thick books, but I can’t get through them no matter how much I try. 😛 I’m sure they’re high fibre and all that, but it’s just too dry for me.

    Sidenote: I find myself getting addicted to your blog, you write such fun posts. Please keep doing what you’re doing!

    1. I’ll definitely let you know how I go on Ulysses. I’m currently reading a bit every night, and my main complaint is how much James Joyce leaves out. Maybe I’m a bit slow, but he asks me to do an awful lot of inferring about what’s going on.

      I read Moby Dick years ago, even the chapter on cetology, which confused me at first, but then I found hilarious. I felt virtuous. It is pretty high in fibre. 🙂 I haven’t tried Nostromo yet, though.

      Aw, thank you for saying that. It’s intimidating putting my writing out in the world, and it’s lovely to know someone appreciates it. You just made my day!

  3. “I believe the writing that comes out of you is strongly influenced by the writing that goes into you.” I wholeheartedly agree with you. That’s why it’s so important to read a variety of books. I love YA Fantasy, but I would read about anything (except maybe for memoirs. That’s my broccoli – I actually laughed at the “broccoli book” lol). I’m reading “The art of racing in the rain” (NY Times Best seller) by Garth Stein and it’s written from a dog’s point of view. So far it’s pretty funny. I just attended a writing conference where the author showed so much passion for his book that I had to read it and so far it’s pretty funny and original. I firmly believe that each book brings something new to the table and these lessons are what will make us stronger as a writer regardless of the genre you read.

    1. It’s funny you mention memoirs as your broccoli books (and it makes me happy that you like the term). If you asked me I wouldn’t say I liked memoirs, but looking on my kindle I’ve actually read quite a few. I started reading them for research – what better way to get in someone’s head than to be them for a few hundred pages? – but I found myself getting caught up in all sorts of corners of life that I had no idea existed. I’ve raised an owl, learned how to get through to seriously troubled children, ridden along with an emergency medical team in a helicopter, done life-saving surgery, travelled the world to win cage fights…

      I would never write one, though, because it would go something like this: Alecia went to university and passed. And she has a cat, who didn’t go to university.

      Now I have to go and check out “The art of racing in the rain”.

  4. I settled on Portrait of the Artists as a Young Man and called it good on my James Joyce fix. Have you ever read The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss? I think it might be broccoli and junk food at the same time. So brilliant

    1. I think I made it halfway through Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (which was further than I got with Ulysses, though given their relative lengths the number of pages might have been the same).

      I have read The Name of the Wind, and I agree it’s brilliant, it just didn’t do it for me. The MC wasn’t a person I enjoyed spending time with. Also, I generally dislike books written in first person, especially fantasy–it tricked me, because the frame story is third person. Sneaky.

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