The main focus of our summer school this year is exploring the benefits of close reading. We asked several of the facilitators to tell us about their reading habits and the importance of reading to their work.
Roisin Kiberd is a writer from Dublin, currently living in Berlin. She has been published in The Dublin Review, The Stinging Fly, The White Review, The Guardian, Vice and other publications.
Stephen Sexton’s first book, If All the World and Love Were Young, was the winner of the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. He is the 2020 recipient of the E.M. Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He was the winner of the National Poetry Competition in 2016 and an Eric Gregory Award in 2018.
Mia Gallagher is the author of two acclaimed novels: HellFire (Penguin, 2006), awarded the Irish Tatler Literature Award 2007, and Beautiful Pictures of the Lost Homeland (New Island, 2016), longlisted for the 2016 Republic of Consciousness Award (UK). Her first short-story collection, Shift, was published by New Island in 2018. Mia is one of our contributing editors and a member of Aosdána.
Arnold Thomas Fanning‘s work has been published in The Dublin Review, Banshee, The Irish Times, Crazyhorse Magazine, gorse, The Stinging Fly & Correspondences: An Anthology to Call for an End to Direct Provision, among others. His book, Mind on Fire: A Memoir of Madness and Recovery, was published by Penguin Ireland in 2018 and shortlisted for the Butler Literary Award, The Irish Book Awards Newcomer of the Year, and the Wellcome Book Prize 2019. He is currently Arts Council Writer in Residence, NUI Galway 2020.
Caelainn Hogan is a writer and journalist from Dublin. Her book Republic of Shame was published in 2019 by Penguin and investigates the ongoing legacy of Ireland’s religious-run institutions. She has reported internationally for The New York Times Magazine, National Geographic, The Guardian, Harper’s, VICE, The Washington Post and others.
Martina Evans is the author of eleven books of prose and poetry. Her latest collection Now We Can Talk Openly About Men was published by Carcanet in May 2018, and featured in the Times Literary Supplement, Observer and Irish Times Books of the Year and has been shortlisted for the 2019 Irish Times Poetry Now Award as well as the Pigott Poetry Award.
She has been an associate lecturer in Creative Writing at Birkbeck University and University of East London and a Creative Writing tutor at the City Literary Institute, Covent Garden, London for many years.
How is reading important to you?
Roisin Kiberd: I’ve found myself burdened by weird hang-ups about reading and imagined expectations at different points during my life. I’ve gone for years without reading. Even now (a lot like with writing) I go through phases of maniacal reading, maybe one book per day, then I stop for weeks or even months. I also used to have a lot of neurosis around the idea of there being a ‘canon’, much of which I hadn’t read. There’s this exhibitionist side to reading which I usually try to avoid (shelfies, online recommendations, sitting in cafes very visibly reading big, chunky, tasteful-looking books…) because it makes me nervous.
I try to just go with what’s exciting to me instead. I also use my work as an excuse to go deep into obscure subjects and read everything available. Cutting down on research is a problem sometimes. It borders on a kind of bibliomania, or online data-hoarding.
Stephen Sexton: I suppose I’ve come to acknowledge that many of us participate in different kinds of reading, and at different times and for different reasons. The reading involved with Sunday newspapers, say, (the crossword, one of the easier recipes) isn’t the same kind of reading I bring to a poetry book, or a novel. I suppose when I think of reading, I think of my best, most active, entirely engaged reading. Most of the time, though, my best ‘reading’ occurs hours after I’ve engaged with a piece of writing, when it starts to declare its tenancy in my imagination.
It’s worth noting too, I think, the sheer depth and breadth of our engagement with reading. Beyond print publishing, films, TV shows and podcasts are things I find myself ‘reading’; the internet is largely images and texts. Far from not reading, our young people, occasionally demonised for not reading, seem to be voracious readers. For me, reading is utterly inseparable from daily life, but it’s much more than an engagement with a poem or a story.
Mia Gallagher: Lots of ways, it offers a refuge, a way to journey outside my own experience, it’s a comfort, it can be engrossing, entertaining, exciting. It can pull up feelings for me that I don’t even know I have. It can make me fall in love – with a person, other being, place or time. It keeps me connected.
Arnold Thomas Fanning: Reading is vital to me: I read every day, with usually a few books – fiction and non-fiction – on the go at the same time. Some of this reading is for pleasure, some for work (such as teaching), some because I am interested in how the text may help my writing.
Does your reading inform your writing? In what ways?
RK: 100%. My writing is usually a mixture of primary and secondary sources. (A bit personal, a bit impersonal, a bit of tenuous Wikipedia link-following and downloading academic papers…) Often this quite excessive research process becomes part of the piece itself – most pieces are the product of a personal obsession. I also like to acknowledge the limits of my own work, and the limits of understanding or empathy for my subject, because we’re living in a heavily mediated world where that’s a fact of life, and truth feels like an unstable thing.
SS: It does, in ways I can identify and, I’m sure, in ways far beyond my recognition. If one’s general experience of living might provide materials and situations and emotional grist, some books can expose me not only to the points of view and experiences of people whose lives are very different to mine, but also to style and technique; formal experimentation; structure and presentation. In other words, reading certain books and kinds of writing can demonstrate so much of the how of writing, as well as the what. I think often of Marianne Moore’s phrase ‘imaginary gardens with real toads in them’. I think reading can help you map out your imaginary garden. However, like an artificial rock pool or a bad dinner party, you’ve got to provide your own toads.
MG: I think it does, yes, but it’s not a straightforward, linear relationship. I absorb books – their content/subject, their atmosphere, their language, and I’m also really tickled/excited when I come across a book that does something I hadn’t imagined was possible, or only half-imagined was possible. I do steal things from books I’ve admired – these are often structural things, like setting a chapter/section/whatever over the course of a day (stolen from McEwan’s Saturday), or interleaving past and present and using different extents/lengths to do that (Es Geht Uns Gut by Arno Geiger). Sometimes a writer does something so amazing with perspective, voice or language that I feel it raises the bar, puts it up to me to push my own writing practice further. But the way I then respond to the challenge can be a wrinkly, roundabout route.
ATF: Reading feeds into and informs my writing in many ways. Sometimes it simply inspires – I can recall recently three texts I read that directly motivated me to write on a certain theme or in a certain way. I say texts as one was a book, one an essay, and one an interview in a newspaper.
I also read interviews with writers, and recently one informed me on a rewriting method I found very helpful in working on a new manuscript that was challenging me.
Caelainn Hogan: If I’m working on an in-depth piece I’ll read widely for research, from government reports to books that give me insight into the issue or provide a firsthand testimony. Sometimes books have influenced how I approach an article. When I was reporting in northern Nigeria the concepts in James C Scott’s book Seeing Like A State helped me think more deeply about the context of state power and making populations legible. Anna Funder’s Stasiland was influential before I wrote Republic of Shame in the way she uses herself within the narrative to help the reader engage in a more tangible way with the history of a place and the people she speaks to.
How have you developed as a reader over time?
RK: I’ve probably not developed. I grew up on Roald Dahl, and I’m as heavily into dark humour and weird shit as I’ve ever been. The only difference these days is that I’m no longer intimidated by ‘hard’ science and tech writing. I want to mediate. I try to make these subjects human and intelligible and, hopefully, a little poetic, too. I don’t care as much as I used to about the idea of there being a certain type of mind and personality that allows someone to understand science.
SS: I have, though I’m never sure if I’ve changed for the better. I like to think I’m more patient in the face of ‘difficulty’, whatever form that might take. Perhaps the most significant development as a reader is gaining an understanding of the context and tradition in which a piece of writing finds itself. That only really comes from reading steadily and with as much range as your curiosity can manage.
MG: Not much and some. I still look for the things that I loved reading for as a kid and young person: escape, difference, adventure, expansion. I’ve probably got more technically/craft aware, but if I’m loving reading something the craft awareness drops down below the surface as I’m just hooked into the sensation.
ATF: I feel I have made more of an effort to read actively and creatively in recent years: I would say I read critically in university as part of my studies, more for pleasure in the years after, and currently am in a more active mode of reading. (I should add that as a playwright I spent many years actively engaging in theatre performance which informed my playwriting which coincided with the time I read prose for pleasure.)
CH: I didn’t grow up wanting to be a journalist and when I was younger would always read fiction. As a teenager I was a little fixated on the stream of consciousness style of beat generation writers and also dystopian novels, many of which happened to be written by people who also worked as journalists. So maybe there was a hint all along that I would turn to non-fiction. In college I studied ‘just English’ but ended up being introduced to a mix of political and postcolonial theory that made a big impression, including writers like Jacques Ranciere, Gayatri Spivak, Frantz Fanon and Hannah Arendt. Spivak makes you understand we can’t ‘give a voice’ to anyone as non-fiction writers and to be aware of that. I was also introduced to Hiroshima by John Hersey which showed the possibility of reportage that was novelistic in scope. While I was still studying I went to Kashmir and learned a huge amount from journalists there. I also read Ryszard Kapuscinski’s book Another Day of Life about reporting on the civil war in Angola, which again opened up the potential of nonfiction.
Have your reading patterns changed as you have progressed as a writer?
RK: I’m skeptical of anything fashionable. There’s a predictable pattern with me: I’ll avoid anything getting a lot of hype, then, about a year later, I will read/watch/listen to it and try to make up my mind (and often end up agreeing completely with the hype, lol).
SS: The breadth of my reading has increased, certainly. When I was first dedicating myself more seriously to writing poems, I was mostly reading those poets who constitute something of a canon, official or not. For many reasons, there are problems with such a collection of writers, particularly when it comes to questions of gender or class or race. I try to read widely.
I find myself reading many more just-published books than I might have five years ago. Part of that is down to having spent some time working towards a first book and trying to be conscious of the environment in which it would be published. Part of it too is spending too much time on Twitter, being hyper aware of the many new books being written and released. For all of its faults, Twitter keeps me abreast of all manner of literary phenomena.
MG: Yeah. I have to read more now – mentoring, colleagues’ work, recommendations, so the freedom I had starting out to just read when and where and what I wanted has eroded somewhat. I’m reading fewer books at the moment – partly because I’m reading more news and articles online (The Guardian mainly), or I’m reading works in progress. But also I watch more telly – and telly (drama) is really excellent and it tends to hit the same sweet spots as books. I want to read more, I feel I should, but I think/hope it’ll happen organically. I’m starting to read (some books) slower. like I’m reading Dirty Havana Trilogy by Gutierrez in translation at the moment. It’s taking me ages, and I’m taking notes (which I never do reading fiction) but it’s so damn good it demands it of me.
ATF: In more recent years I have become more interested in new, contemporary Irish fiction and non-fiction writing. I’m much more interested in reading as much of that as possible, in literary journals, for example, which I would have not have been so conscious of during the years I was involved in theatre.
CH: When I began working as a freelance journalist I probably read fewer books and more articles. I’m actually a slow reader. Literary journals including the Dublin Review, The Stinging Fly and Granta were important sources of new non-fiction writing to learn from. Recently I hosted the ‘Portals’ podcast for the International Literature Festival Dublin and had to read through six books of both non-fiction and fiction in a couple of weeks. It reintroduced me to reading fiction and I was particularly struck by Fernanda Melchor’s novel Hurricane Season, which she considered writing as non-fiction originally.
What are you looking for first and foremost now as a reader?
RK: Exciting things! People putting their hearts out there in writing.
SS: I want to say I want to be surprised, but I don’t know if I can be surprised if I’m looking for surprise!
MG: Quality. Something that makes me stop and see the world differently. Honesty & a sense that there’s something in the work I may not consciously be aware of that is worrying away at me, demanding to be heard
ATF: A voice that is compelling in both fiction and non-fiction, and an appreciation of nuance, light and shade in a narrative, and an honest exploration of self and memory and its limitations (in non-fiction); humour is always welcome too.
CH: I want to read more writers from marginalised communities given the space to write their own stories. I am also looking for writing that challenges or reframes my understanding of an issue, writing that complicates accepted narratives, particularly work that is immersive or experiments with structure.
A book is a physical object in a world of physical objects. It is a set of dead symbols. And then the right reader comes along, and the words—or rather the poetry behind the words, for the words themselves are mere symbols—spring to life, and we have a resurrection of the word.
—Jorge Luis Borges
Reading and writing are intertwined so much in my mind that I hardly know where one begins and the other ends. Olaf Hauge’s poem ‘Leaf-huts and Snow-houses’ is about the act of writing but it could also describe my experience of reading, ‘There’s not much to/these verses, only/a few words piled up/at random./I think/nonetheless/it’s fine/to make them, then/for a little while/I have something like a house’. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that so many of the children’s books we fall in love with at an early age involve a shelter where adventures begin and end. Home is often portrayed by animals living in underground houses in other worlds (maps usually supplied!) where the reader can burrow in to enjoy vicarious adventures. Learning to read at three was one of the most exciting things that ever happened to me—I’d deciphered a code that opened an infinite number of doors. What lay beyond each door? At first, the sheer escape was exhilarating but what I didn’t realise was that the effectiveness of the escape was governed by the images, the rhythm and all those other components which make up a particular writer’s style. I sensed this through a haze which cleared a little as my understanding began to grow but my true appreciation began after I became a writer. For me reading is all about opening oneself up to another writer’s world—what are they saying (not what we think they should be saying) and most importantly how are they saying it. It is the work of a lifetime. Borges said that good readers are much rarer than good writers. One day I hope to be one of those good readers.