Learning from the Masters

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“One must be drenched in words, literally soaked in them to have the right ones form themselves into the proper pattern at the right moment.”  — Hart Crane

Babies are hard-wired for language acquisition, but they aren’t born speaking complete sentences. Similarly, even the most talented and passionate of storytellers doesn’t start out by writing a masterpiece. We learn first by observing, then by imitating.

If you want to be a writer, you must first be a reader. And if you want to be a good writer, you must read good books.

But where should you start? Time is short and the list of great books lengthy indeed.

Having grown tired of the number of “should reads” on my “someday” reading list and embarrassed to admit, as a self-professed bookworm and would-be English major, that I’d not read some of the most towering works of Western literature, I decided to tackle the problem head-on with the dogged determination of a list-loving schoolmarm.

For the past 11 months, I’ve been working my way through what has turned into a five-year, one-person classical book club. The experience has challenged my abilities as both a reader and a writer and, in the process, rekindled my belief in the beauty and power of words to transcend time and place.

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to share with you what I’ve been learning on this journey—why good books matter, how to read difficult books as an adult, and what dead authors can teach us about writing in the 21st Century. I’ll also be spotlighting some pieces of beautiful writing I’ve admired along the way — and which might inspire your own writing efforts as well.

“We are what we repeatedly do,” historian Will Durant wrote (paraphrasing Aristotle). “Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Just as writers improve through the practice of writing, we also grow through reading and absorbing the great writing of others. I hope you’ll join me back here as we begin learning from the masters.

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What books are on your should-read list? Do you have a favorite classic author? Is there a book you’ve avoided reading or struggled to make it through no matter how many people rave about it? (I’m wary of Moby Dick. It’s one of the top five most abandoned classics. I’m nervous to start it!)

[ Photo credit: Roberto Taddeo ]