You are what you read

by Pari

Have you ever heard the expression: “You are what you eat?”

Well, I’m beginning to believe that I am what I read.

I came to this conclusion last week when I decided to stop reading Charles Ives: A Life with Music by Jan Swafford. It’s a gorgeous book, magnificent prose, but it depressed the hell out of me. To say Ives was ahead of his time is about as obvious as saying the sun sets in the east. In spite of almost constant rejection, this American composer kept trying, kept beating his head against the wall, kept putting up with musicians and audiences that reviled his creative viewpoint.

Perhaps some of you would find inspiration in his story.

I didn’t.

Each night I read and felt bleaker and bleaker about creativity, the creative urge. In the mornings, I’d carry that despair around without even realizing its source. Then it hit me: the book, no matter how wonderful, was making me bluer than blue. 

So I returned it to my cello teacher and began reading The Soul of Money.

Ah . . . much better.

Up until that point, I’d never thought about how much books influence me while I’m reading them. And it’s not always the message; it can be the feel of the work or what I know about the author.

My first year in college, I was almost incapacitated when I had to read four Russian classics in a week. I remember sitting at a table in the student union and staring at my hand, curled around a glass of water, and getting caught up in this extraordinarily deep contemplation about the meaning of hands, of water, of life . . .

In grad school, it was St. Francis of Assisi by Nikos Kazantzakis. . .  and I couldn’t get enough feta cheese, Kalamata olives, pita bread and Retsina. Obviously I was responding to the author here and the gusto of his storytelling.

Alice Hoffman’s writing makes me see magic in the world. Jenny Crusie helps me find the humor. Thomas Eisner makes me look closely at the smallest creatures on the planet with awe and fascination. (Click on Eisner’s photos of butterfly wings; you can look at his bio later. I’ll wait.)

So  . . . am I a murderer because I read so many mysteries? Am I hero? Not exactly. But when I’ve connected with a book, it absolutely affects my day-to-day experience while I’m reading it.

Right now, I’m in a very interesting place; here are the books on my bedside table:

The Soul of Money – Lynne Twist

Rainbow’s End and Other StoriesJohn M. Floyd

Wicked Plants: The Weed that Killed Lincoln’s Mother and Other Botanical AtrocitiesAmy Stewart

The Turquoise ShopFrances Crane  (She happens to be one of our ghosts of honor for LCC Santa Fe)

Dying in StyleElaine Viets

Occupation WriterRobert Graves

A Gathering of DoorwaysMichael Jasper

Writing Mysteries – edited by Sue Grafton

A little bit of this, a little bit of that . . . and I’m in a pretty good mood.

How about you?
Do the books you read influence your daily experience of life while you’re reading them?
Can you track similar responses?

Or am I utterly mad?

37 thoughts on “You are what you read

  1. Vicky McAulay

    I’ve never made a connection between my mood swings and what I’m reading, but it deserves some thought, and it will give the much maligned hormones a break. I like it.

    Reply
  2. pari noskin taichert

    Vicky,
    Any excuse, right?

    Actually, I’m totally serious about this. When I was reading John Sanford, I was looking over my shoulder much more than usual; Charlaine Harris’ books make me feel sexier etc.

    Reply
  3. Eika

    It makes more than a little sense to me. I tend to get more than a little depressed about the state of the world/my writing/whatever when I’m inundated with far, far too many bad books to read for school, and feel immensely better when I get to read for fun.

    Reply
  4. pari noskin taichert

    Eika,
    I’m curious . . . do you notice that you respond to specific books? For example, when I was in grad school I felt optimistic when reading books about successful therapies. Reading studies on family dysfunction brought me right down.

    Reply
  5. Louise Ure

    I haven’t been able to focus on any book for months now, so when I read Joan Didion’s "The Year of Magical Thinking" last week, I expected the same. But this was a book about her first year after her husband’s death and I found myself lightheaded while reading, because I’d forgotten to breathe. Wonderful writer. Wonderful book. And I know I’m not going crazy now.

    Reply
  6. Robert Gregory Browne

    I have a hard time reading books at all anymore. This has been a problem since I started writing books of my own. The excitement I once felt when I walked into a bookstore has abandoned me. Now when I go into the bookstore, I see my business at work. I check to see if friends’ books are on the shelves, I look at the clerks to see whether or not they seem interested in what they’re doing…

    (Just yesterday, my wife and I went to Borders and she spent the entire time finding Murderati author’s books and facing them outward on the display racks.)

    When I pick up a book now, I see all the work that went into it and am suddenly reminded that I’m on deadline. Maybe if I get a chance to go on vacation soon, I can renew my spirit.

    I seem to have sacrificed the thing I love for the thing I love.

    Reply
  7. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Pari – thank you for such a wonderful list of books. I want to read all of them. Particularly the Robert Graves.
    Louise – I read the Didion, too, and it really moved me. She was such a beautiful writer and she really conveyed the essence of their relationship in her book.
    Pari…now you’ve got me worried…I’m currently reading "Bind Torture Kill" the true-life story of the BTK killer. And I can’t put it down.

    Reply
  8. Dana King

    Anyone inspired by Ives’s story must strongly believe in an afterlife, as his music wasn’t accepted until after he died. I’m not one of those instant gratification folks, but I’d like to at least smell the flowers, not have them placed on my grave.

    I d a little of what you described, but only a couple of times a year, with books that either move me, or really irritate me. My wife can tell when I’m reading an Irish novel, as "gobshite" and "bollocks" will occasionally appear when I’m teasing her about something.

    Reply
  9. Tammy Cravit

    I can totally relate to what you’re saying, Pari. I’ve had a few books recently that I’ve set aside because they were incompatible with my mood at the moment I was reading them and would take my emotions to places I didn’t want them to go. While I love Andrew Vachss’s novels, for example, I have to be in a certain emotional place to read them, else they remind me of past experiences that still, 25+ years later, hurt enough to make the reading experience un-enjoyable.

    I’ve been reading "Blindman’s Bluff" by Faye Kellerman lately, along with a bunch of legal-related non-fiction for work.

    I’ve added the book Louise mentioned to my "to read" list, but it may take me a while to get there.

    Reply
  10. Judy Wirzberger

    I had often found myself responding emotionally to books I was reading. Once I identified the source, I was able to say "AH, that’s it," and then let it go. Now I find myself analyzing just how the author got me to a certain emotional point. By the way, John Floyd is one of the kindest, most supportive e-mail relationships I have ever had. Makes me want to spend time in Mississippi in his classes.

    By the way, Pari, wouldn’t that be a great thriller – someone who reads books and then ….

    Louise, it’s good to spot you here.

    Reply
  11. Allison Brennan

    I don’t think we can help, as creative people, to be affected by what we read and see on television or the movies, or hear on the news. There’s a commercial on the radio that had me cry the first time I heard it about a teenager who was killed by a drunk driver. I won’t listen to it anymore. Another commercial, same public service agency, about a 5 year old who fell off a boat in Tahoe and drowned because he wasn’t wearing a life vest. I won’t listen to that, either. I cry at movies or laugh out loud, and my mood afterward relates to what I saw. If it was a bad movie, I’m cynical. Good movie, optimistic.

    Fiction doesn’t affect me as much as non-fiction, maybe because subconsciously I know it’s all made up. But then again, most of the fiction I read is mysteries (crime solved by end) or romance (happily ever after) so I already KNOW that the book is going to be satisfying. Books that have depressing endings I just don’t read, and there have been a couple books billed as thrillers/mysteries where the ending was ambiguous and I DID NOT LIKE THEM and felt not only cheated but depressed at the state of the world (because I know that lots of crimes aren’t solved.

    Rob, I’m a lot like you now. I don’t read a fraction of what I used to read (though I did use to read 3-4 books week, so that’s a lot compared to most people.) I’m lucky to read one book for pleasure (not a blurb, not research) a month. And I usually only read books I know I will like because my reading time is so precious.

    And another thought–if we have strong reactions to books, whatever kind of reaction, that’s a good thing. Because honestly? That’s the kind of reaction we want our readers to have–to be thrilled, to be romanced, to be scared, to be satisfied.

    Reply
  12. pari noskin taichert

    Louise,
    I saw Joan Didion on Bill Moyers when she first wrote the book. She — and you — are certainly NOT crazy. I’m glad you’re reading that now.

    Rob,
    My reading had gone way down before signing up for the master class, but part of the homework was to read 13 books prior to going to OR. In the class the instructors stressed the fact that as writers we NEED to remember to read for pleasure, to train ourselves to turn off the editors inside our heads. I’m so glad I’ve regained that pleasure.

    And, yes, I still analyze some books. If something pulls me in totally, I try to figure out why. If something totally turns me off, I might — if I feel inclined for some self-torture — try to figure that out too.

    Stephen,
    I’m worried about you too <g>.
    And Graves was an absolute madman. I can only take his non-fiction in small doses because it’s such a wild ride inside his mind.

    Reply
  13. pari noskin taichert

    Dana,
    I’m with you about Ives. I had no idea when I started the book — which, again, is wonderfully written — how depressing his creative life (at least the response to it from almost everyone) was.

    I, too, pick up expressions from books while I read them. But, then, I do that when I meet people with accents other than my own. I attribute the latter to the fact that I’ve studied so many languages. The imitation comes naturally, though I have accidentally offended at times.

    Tammy,
    Nice to see you here today.
    What you’re talking about is one of the reasons I tend to keep books for a long time. I know I’ll probably be in the right mood for most of them at some time in my life.

    Judy,
    Ha! Write that book!
    John is wonderful. I met him at Murder in the Magic City and we’ve been in touch intermittently ever since. Such a gentleman and such a fine short story writer. I have nothing but admiration for him.

    Reply
  14. pari noskin taichert

    Allison,
    You’re right about us creative folks. I can’t watch any APSCA commercial . . .
    Books that make us react with strong emotion work if the emotions evoked are close to the ones intended by the author. I don’t think that a book that evokes fury in me because it’s horridly written works, though my emotion may be potent.

    I think it’d be interesting to talk about the editor in our heads and how much she/he interferes with our pleasure of reading. I’ve tamed mine because of the master class and the result has enriched my life again . . .

    Also, I know people in other creative disciplines that have the same conundrum. A friend of ours who is a conductor has a terrible time listening to symphonies now . ..

    Reply
  15. Gar Anthony Haywood

    Pari:

    Wow. We must be operating on the same vibe these days. I just wrote a blog post with the same title about how what we read, especially in our earliest days as a writer, affects what kind of writer we become. Check it out.

    Rob:

    I find if you restrict what you read to only the cream of the crop — books and writers you not only love to read, but who can teach you things you still need to learn — you can always find time to read. Yeah, your inner voice of judgment will still be on — there’s no way to turn that off, once it’s been activated — but not so much so when you’re reading something really, really good.

    Reply
  16. Robert Gregory Browne

    Gar, I know I’m reading something really, really good when I forget I’m a writer while I’m reading it.

    Still, it’s not mentally editing other readers’ work that keeps me from reading. It’s the guilt that I’m not working when I should be, so the pleasure I get is muted.

    Reply
  17. pari noskin taichert

    Gar,
    That’s fascinating. I will check it out!

    Rob,
    I hadn’t thought of that angle in interfering with reading, though I know I feel that way as well sometimes. Thank you for bringing it up.

    Reply
  18. T. L. Cooper

    My first reaction was to say "Absolutely not." Then I thought for a minute and realized I’d be fibbing. Yes, what I’m reading definitely affects my day to day life. I’ve tried new foods based on books. I’ve tried new experiences based something I read in a book. As a teenager I even set my "dream" place to live based on a book. I talked about how that expectation didn’t work out on my blog, writewithtlc.tlcooper.com, in December. I find that a book can affect my mood as well. I’ve read books that depressed me and books that lifted me out of bad moods.
    Recently, I read A Wedding in December by Anita Shreve. It was an enjoyable book, but it kept transporting me into my own memories. I would get lost in those memories and feel really odd when I found my way back to the present. That was the first time I’ve had that particular experience.
    Last week I was reading a mystery that seemed to be taking forever. My husband commented that it must be a really good book because I was carrying it everywhere to which, much to my own surprise, I replied "Not really. I’ve been reading it all week, and I just want to be done with it." Up until that moment, I thought I was enjoying the book! Instead, I realized it making me feel irritable. Wow, what a revelation! It wasn’t that the book was bad. I think I just started reading it when I was in the mood for something other than a mystery.
    Right now, I’m reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and I can’t wait to see how that affects view of food on a daily basis. I’m already extremely picky about the quality and type of foods we eat, so this could really intensify that if I’m not careful.
    So, the reality is that everything I read affects me to some degree even when I don’t want to admit it.

    Reply
  19. Allison Brennan

    Pari, I don’t mentally edit–it’s just that now when I read, I want to be immersed in the story and completely entertained. I don’t want a bad ending. I have to trust the author to fulfill the story promise I expect from the genre I picked up. If it’s supposed to be funny, I want to laugh. If it’s supposed to be a romance, I want a HEA. If it’s supposed to be a mystery, I want a resolution and justice. I’ve read too many books (not usually genre books) where the ending doesn’t justify the set-up. One mystery/thriller didn’t resolve one of the main story questions and it PISSED ME OFF. I expected a resolution and enjoyed the book immensely until I didn’t get what I had been led to believe I would get: answers to a cold case. Grrr. I won’t read that author again, and I know a love of people like the books.

    Reply
  20. B.G. Ritts

    I have always thought that my mood determined whether I enjoyed a book or not โ€“ not that the book produced my mood. I’m currently reading Block’s Bernie the burglar series, and thoroughly enjoying them. The mood is light, for the most part, and breezy and the books seem to be where I want a story at the moment. I will need to consider the possibility that the books have gotten me to that place. I know, however, that there is nothing about burglary that I intend to try out.

    Reply
  21. pari noskin taichert

    T.L.
    I’m amused. I know when I realized what was going on, it felt really weird . . . like I couldn’t even hold on to my own personality. Now I’ve embraced the mutability of it.

    Allison,
    Thank you for the clarification. When I stop to think about it, I bet I wasn’t editing either — but I was criticizing, and being critical, while reading. As to endings and the ride, the experience of the book, yes. I feel betrayed when a book I expect to deliver a certain kind of punch — based on genre or whatever the set up is — doesn’t live up to its promises.

    I feel that same way about songs that start out with great percussive leads and then have wimpy or stupid vocals.

    B.G.,
    It may be a kind of chicken/egg situation. I don’t know. But I wasn’t in the mood to read those Russian novels and had that incredible psychological experience; I hadn’t been looking for feta and Retsina and ended up needing both.

    But on another subject, I bet you’d be quite good at burglary.

    Reply
  22. JT Ellison

    What a great post. Yes, I definitely adapt to the books I’m reading. That’s why when I get stuck writing, I have certain go tos that I know will help compose my mind for my own work. I have to be in the mood for certain books – I started Jo Nesbo’s REDBREAST and stopped after a couple of pages – it was just too dense for my state of mind then. I’m anxious to try it again when I’m in a different stage.

    Reply
  23. pari noskin taichert

    Well, we’re reading the last Harry Potter book right now (it’s the third or fourth time for my older child — a real HP freak).

    I’ve never read Gabaldon and want to, will, maybe after the books I’m in right now.

    Reply
  24. B.G. Ritts

    "I bet you’d be quite good at burglary."

    Actually, I don’t have the daring for it. I’d be too skittish to even try it the first time.

    Reply
  25. Erin R.

    Until recently, I’d never stopped reading a book I considered well-written before. I’ve put down many a poorly written book with no guilt whatsoever. It was only this past year that I found myself putting down Natsuo Kirino’s novel Grotesque and feeling utterly defeated. The unnamed narrator of Grotesque is so bitter and vindictive and spiteful that I started to feel like I should be wearing protective gloves while I read…but what I needed was a mental force field. That book brought me down, baby, down.
    On the other hand, it’s great to have a stash of books that I know will bring me back up…and I do have quite a stash (so to speak).

    Reply
  26. anonymous

    I feel that it is a personal defeat to stop reading a book before it’s end. There are a lot of books that I have become bogged down in; ones that just did not grab me or create an interest for me that would move me from page to page. But I have never……. NOT….finished a book if I have decided to pick it up and open it’s pages. I have toured my way through some awful reads. But I can’t ever stop and discard my chosen responsibility without finishing. It’s the least I can do for the writer and for myself. Who the fuck knows…..that last paragraph could be the one that reminds one of all of the tsouris that one’s Uncle shielded you from as a child, ya know?

    Picking up a book with intent to read is as ethically involving as contemplating the start of a personal sexual relationship with intent to commit with sincerity.

    I guess I think this should be the rule for all things…………

    Reply
  27. pari noskin taichert

    B.G.,
    I don’t think you give yourself enough credit.

    Erin,
    That’s exactly what I’m talking about. I don’t think we should feel guilty one way or another about our reading or our choices vis a vis the books we’ve bought/taken out of the library. Life is too short and there are too many books that WILL give us the experiences we crave.

    Which brings me to Anonymous . . .
    Really interesting perspective here. I’ve read manuscripts occasionally for a publisher and felt like I had to finish them even though I knew I couldn’t, in good conscience, recommend for publication. That was because I know what it takes to write a book. My sympathy was with the writer.

    The person who runs the press told me to stop after a few pages. "Don’t torture yourself," he said.

    I admire your conviction about books, Anon, but don’t share it. My time is too precious. Reading takes me away from my family and other tasks. I need it to be satisfying.

    I’m also aware that there are certainly people who’ve put down the books I — and the other ‘Rati — have written.

    Alex,
    Young and English, huh? Are you enjoying it? Drinking butter beer?

    Reply
  28. T. L. Cooper

    I remembered another book that had a really strong impact on me, and I just had to come share the experience. Several years ago I read A Child Called It by Dave Pelzer. I had an actual viseral reaction to that book. There were at least two scenes in the book that made me vomit they were so intense. I’m not exaggerating. I finished the book but never could bring myself to read the other two in the trilogy. For those of you who don’t know, it’s a story of horrific abuse a mother inflicts on her son. My reaction to the book was so strong, I had to donate the book to the library. Every time I saw the book on my bookshelf, I started gagging. The abuse in the book felt way too real to me. The book is well written though. I try not to even think about the book, but it worked it’s way out of my subconscious this morning as I woke up, so I felt compelled to share.

    Reply
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