If I start a writing day by first reading something, I tend to read work that I respect, work that inspires me, that reminds me why writing matters and of the role books can have in our lives. I still subscribe to such a theory and advocate its application. However, after a conversation with my oldest daughter about an ethnography she was assigned early on in a graduate course, I am reminded that there is merit and instruction in doing the opposite—read a BAD book.
Why waste your time, you are inclined to say. Well, one could offer the argument that I recall no lesser writer than William Stafford once made, that reading a bad book can bolster your confidence to write a good one. There is something more, I think. It is something that requires you to read differently, for if you are reading a bad book as part of your writing development, then you must identify, specifically, what makes it so bad. Here you can’t just dismiss opinion or consider your reaction a matter of taste, you really have to identify how and why the book fails in its writing. (Remember, there are books written badly on important and compelling subjects and those who wish earnestly to have value, as well as those that simply offer bad “B” movie treatments of tired, weak-limbed, I’m-not-pretending-not-to-waste-your-time wood pulp destroyers.) You must get analytical and study a bad book with the same intensity the smart writer studies a good book. Once identified, the hard part is not repeating the same errors.
Try this useful exercise the next time you are frustrated, but don’t give it too much time because not only are there droves of good books you need to read, you’ve can’t afford another excuse to delay returning to your own work (remembering that it might just take a great deal of bad writing to ever get to the good stuff).