Writers, and anyone else who takes reading seriously, should consider keeping a reading diary. It is amazing how such a diary can shake loose powerful insights that enhance your understanding of the literary world and even life itself. The steady accumulation of thoughts about books, writers, and ideas has a way of revealing your own innate philosophy of life and can become a treasure trove of material should the impulse strike to do some writing of your own.
I strongly urge young would-be writers to keep a record of their reading. Believe me; you will not regret the time and effort required. You probably toy with the idea from time to time already. Listen to yourself. Not only will you reap the benefits I have already outlined, you will also find the steady stream of entries a natural form of rewarding writing exercise.
Do not be discouraged if your early entries seem crude or simplistic. No one starts at the top. (One of life’s most annoying realities!) If you persist, your mind will automatically develop new skills. Ways of improving what you write will come to you in a series of surprising insights and fresh ideas. Be patient (or persistent) and you will become proficient as a matter of course.
I offer the following page from my own diary as an example of a mature reader at work. This entry weaves together ideas from the book I was reading, some knowledge I acquired from a biography of Ludwig Wittgenstein, and a few thoughts on creativity as the West conceives the process. I wrote several diary entries while reading the Powys biography.
January 18, 2004
I’m reading The Brothers Powys, a fascinating biography of the three most famous Powys children. The trio of English writers all seem to have suffered from severe depressive anxiety. This literally ate their guts out. Llewelyn, who had tuberculosis, lived his last days in a sanatorium in Switzerland, yet died, not from a lung hemorrhage as one might expect, but from bleeding ulcers.
I got interested in John Cowper Powys when I heard he wrote huge Romantic novels (e.g. A Glastonbury Romance) which no one would publish because he steadfastly refused to cut them. Massive artistic integrity and all that. As with the romantic tales of lonely Wittgenstein writing his great works in a Spartan “hut” nestled above a remote Norwegian fiord, this turned out to be a myth. Powys needed the money, and without much protest cut enormous swathes from his books in order to please his editors.
Wittgenstein finished few of his philosophical works during his lifetime. Most were published posthumously when others assembled his many scribbled notes. Unable to tolerate solitude, he spent precious little time in his custom-built cottage in Norway, his most productive spells coming whenever he enjoyed luxurious circumstances, such as a fine suite on the top floor of a warm Dublin hotel, where he was waited on hand and foot and could dine in style either in the hotel’s own dining room or in nearby restaurants. He also did well whenever he boarded with families who were willing to look after him in much the same way as the staff in that Dublin Hotel. He had such periods while living for a year in a Norwegian village with the postmaster and his family, and again when he was dying of prostate cancer while being cared for by his doctor and the doctor’s wife.
Misconceptions such as those about Powys and Wittgenstein are common in the West where the famously creative are concerned. They show how the act of creation has acquired a peculiar philosophical mystique. Great creators are troubled, solitary folk who live Spartan lives in remote romantic places, men and women who, in spite of their lonely agony remain stoically dedicated to their “unique” artistic vision, who stand firm as Horatio at the bridge against any and all attempts to alter the products of that vision, and who, under no circumstances, will be deflected from their chosen paths as artists, scientists, or whatever.