Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Read or write?

I'm now in my sixties, which means that I'm looking at a maximum of about thirty more years of life. Which should I do? Read, or write?
Larry McMurtry, Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen

Most of us of advancing years face, if not the same question Larry McMurtry did in 1999 when he wrote Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, at least a similar one. Should I see as much of the world as I can while I still can or should I stay home and mind the dahlias or watch the grandchildren grow up or whatever? Should I volunteer more or use what energy I have to get my things in order so my heirs don't have to deal with them? When time seems endless, there is time for everything. Later you realize that is not true.

McMurtry says he had no books at all until, when he was 6, an older cousin presented him with 19 popular Grosset and Dunlap children's books he had outgrown. "I quickly began to need books as naturally as I need food," he writes. Book editors, literary critics and literature professors may be able to make a living by reading, but most avid readers need to do something else to survive. McMurtry chose the next best thing, writing and, later, dealing secondhand books. Yet he found himself torn, even as a younger man. When he was writing books or buying and selling books, he couldn't be reading books. This tension has only become more pronounced with aging.

McMurtry wonders about other writers. Are they also torn between the need to read and the need to write? Presumably people become writers in the first place because they loved to read. Yet I have also read about at least one writer who refrained from reading while writing a book for fear another writer's style might influence his own. But don't most professional writers have a book in progress at all times? More commonly authors seem to write in the morning, when their minds are freshest, then read, make public appearances or do whatever needs doing in their personal lives during the rest of the day. That sounds more like the kind of balance McMurtry writes about. But not quite.

"On the rare occasions when I visit another writer's home I always immediately look at their books, which in too many cases consist mainly, if not exclusively, of books they've been sent to blurb or perhaps review.... Few writers now seem to have large libraries, deliberately and selectively acquired. Most merely have accumulations of books which somehow got into their houses, toward which they display little interest or affection. What happened?" If this is true of writers in general, I'm as shocked as McMurtry is.

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